Book Overview - Revelation
by Philip Schaff
INTRODUCTION TO THE REVELATION OF ST. JOHN.
IT is impossible within the limits to which this Introduction must be confined, to discuss with anything like appropriate fulness the many deeply interesting and important questions connected with the Revelation of St. John. This is the more to be regretted because, under the influence of a wiser system of interpretation than has often been applied to it, the book has been of late regaining that high position in the mind of the Church to which, from its purpose and character, it is so justly entitled. No book of the Bible has, indeed, since the rise of the recent school of historical criticism, made in this respect such marked and gratifying progress. The disposition to turn away from it as an insoluble enigma has been gradually disappearing; sneers against it are but little heard; and its interpretation has been in great measure rescued from the hands of well-meaning but mistaken theorists. It is curious to think that all this is largely owing to the efforts of those negative critics who have laboured so zealously to discredit the other books of the New Testament. That these critics have had other ends in view than that of establishing the authenticity of any sacred book; that, in particular, they have hoped, by the result of their inquiries upon the point before us, to be more successful in removing the Fourth Gospel from the Canon, is nothing to the purpose. They have at least vindicated with zeal and with acuteness the authenticity of the Apocalypse; and their conclusions regarding it, to some of which we shall immediately advert, have satisfied even the most of those who might otherwise have hesitated, that we have in it a genuine production of ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ The effect has been in a high degree beneficial. Once satisfied of this, men have felt the importance of earnestly devoting themselves to the interpretation of a work of such marked peculiarities; and, after having made it for centuries the sport of their wildest fancies, they are now settling down to those juster views of its internal characteristics which promise, at no distant date, to produce more harmony in the understanding of its contents than is to be found in the case of any other writing of the New Testament. For these reasons we regret that nothing but a short introduction to the Apocalypse can be attempted here. Believing, as we do, in the preciousness of the inheritance which the Church possesses in it, we should have rejoiced to dwell at some length on the questions to which it has given rise. It will be at once felt, however, that that cannot be, and that we must limit ourselves to as small a space as possible. Omitting all other matter, we propose to speak only of the following points:—The authenticity of the Apocalypse; its general design and character; its structure and plan; and its interpretation.
I.—THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE BOOK.
The first question that meets us is that as to the authenticity of the book. Upon this point Baur expressed his opinion that few writings of the New Testament can claim evidence for an apostolic origin of a kind so ancient and undoubted (Krit. Unters. uber die Kanon. Evang. p. 345). Zeller followed in his master’s steps, with the declaration that the Apocalypse is the real and normal writing of early Christianity; and that, among all the books of the New Testament, it is the only one which with a certain measure of right may claim to have been composed by an Apostle who had become an immediate disciple of Christ (Theolog. Jahrb. 1842, p. 654). In our own country, again, Dr. Davidson thus speaks: ‘Enough has been given to prove that the apostolic origin of the Apocalypse is as well attested as that of any other book of the New Testament. How can it be proved that Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians, for example, on the basis of external evidence, if it be denied that the Apostle John wrote the closing book of the Canon? With the limited stock of early ecclesiastical literature that survives the wreck of time, we should despair of proving the authenticity of any New Testament book by the help of ancient witnesses, if that of the Apocalypse be rejected’ (Introduction, 1st ed., i. p. 318). With these testimonies before us from scholars who cannot be suspected of the slightest desire to uphold the traditional views of the Church, it may almost seem unnecessary to say more. Yet some parts of the evidence are in themselves so interesting that it would not be proper wholly to omit them.
This remark may be particularly applied to the evidence of Papias, who is said by Eusebius to have spoken in his book concerning the ‘Oracles of the Lord’ of a corporeal reign of Christ upon the earth for 1000 years after the resurrection from the dead (H. E. iii. 39). It is not, indeed, stated in this passage that the opinion referred to was taken from the Apocalypse, and Papias may have adopted it from some other source. But the probability that he is speaking upon the authority of St. John is in no small degree confirmed by the fact that Andreas and Arethas, two bishops of Caesarea in the second half of the fifth century, when the work of Papias, now lost, was still in circulation in the Church, distinctly state—the one, that Papias regarded the Apocalypse as worthy of trust; the other, that the same Father had the Apocalypse before him when he wrote (see the passages in Canonicity, by Dr. Charteris, pp. 338, 339). No doubt, indeed, would probably have been entertained upon the point had not Eusebius, contrary to his custom, failed to tell us that Papias had the Apocalypse in his eye, and had he not raised the question whether the ‘Presbyter John,’ with whom Papias had conversed, might not be a different person from the Apostle. The first of these difficulties is easily removed when we remember that Eusebius, a keen anti-millenarian, and one who speaks with contempt of Papias for his millenarian proclivities, could not but be most unwilling to connect such opinions with a sacred book, and that he was himself doubtful whether the Apocalypse ought to be regarded in this light. The second difficulty again would at once disappear were it allowed, as there seems every reason to think is the case, that the Apostle and the ‘presbyter’ are identical. But even if this cannot be spoken of as established, it is worthy of notice that in another work Eusebius couples the names of Papias and Polycarp of Smyrna together as acknowledged hearers of the Apostle (Chron. Bipart., quoted in Speaker’s Commentary on the New. Test. 4 p. 408). The conclusion is strengthened by the date of Papias’s birth, not later than A.D. 70, and by the scene of his ministry, at no great distance from Ephesus. Another interesting testimony connected with these early times is that of Irenaeus. No one disputes the acquaintance of this Father with the book before us, or that he distinctly ascribes it to St. John. The point of importance is that, as we learn from his beautiful letter to Florinus (Routh’s Reliquiae Sacrae, i. p. 31), he had been a disciple of Polycarp, and that he delighted in after life to call to mind the accounts which his teacher used to give of his intercourse with the Apostle,—an intercourse so truly transmitted to his pupils, that Irenaeus in describing it speaks, with obvious artlessness, not of eye-witnesses of Jesus, but of eye-witnesses of the ‘Word of Life.’
Testimonies such as these are of the highest value, but they are followed by many others of whom, not passing beyond the first half of the third century, we name only Justin Martyr, Melito, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and the document known as the Muratorian Fragment. It is needless to enlarge. External evidence of a more satisfactory and convincing nature could not be desired. One additional remark, however, may be noted. There is a singularly close connection between the sources of no small portion of the evidence and the district in which the Apostle laboured. Papias was bishop of Hierapolis; Polycarp, so intimately associated with Irenaeus, was bishop of Smyrna; Irenaeus belonged to Asia Minor; Melito was bishop of Sardis; and Justin Martyr wrote at Ephesus.
The internal evidence confirms the conclusion drawn from the external. It is true that objections to the authenticity of the book are mainly drawn from this source, and these we must immediately consider. But, looking away from them for a moment, it is hardly possible to think that he who in the opening verses names himself ‘John’ (Revelation 1:4; Revelation 1:9), and who tells us that he was ‘in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ (Revelation 1:9), could be any other than the Apostle. The writer evidently felt that he was entitled to speak to the churches of Asia with an authority which none could question. Antiquity knows of but one John to whom this position can be assigned. The writer had been banished to Patmos for the cause of Christ, and again antiquity speaks only of one of his name who had experienced such a fate. In addition to this, the whole tone and spirit of the book have been justly dwelt upon as being in exact accordance with what we learn from the Gospels of the character of the beloved disciple. The attempt to show that John the presbyter may have been the writer, is now almost universally confessed to be a failure. Even allowing that such a person existed, he cannot have occupied the place in the estimation of the Church which evidently belongs to the author of the Apocalypse, or we should have known more about him. Nor is it less difficult to explain that, if he wrote the Apocalypse, there should be nowhere the slightest hint of his banishment to Patmos.
Upon the allegation that some one wrote the book who only pretended to be the Apostle and assumed his name, it is unnecessary to dwell. The supposition is as destitute of probability as of proof; and the only conclusion warranted by the whole body both of external and of internal evidence is, that no other John can be thought of as its author but he to whom the Church has so unanimously and invariably ascribed the work.
There is, indeed, one branch of internal evidence upon which great reliance has been and is still placed by many for the purpose of establishing the opposite conclusion. It is urged that those who ascribe the Fourth Gospel to the Apostle John cannot possibly believe him to be also the author of the Apocalypse. We have already in this Commentary declared and defended our belief in the Johannine origin of the one (vol. ii. Introduction to the Gospel according to John); we have now to show that this is consistent with a similar belief as to the other. The argument is that a comparison of the two books betrays such an essential difference between them, as to prove that they cannot have proceeded from the same pen. How far, we have now to ask, is this the case? The following particulars may be noted:—
(1.) In the Gospel St. John does not name himself; in the Apocalypse he does. The difference is sufficiently explained by the difference of the books—the one historical, intended to bring forward the Redeemer, and to keep the writer out of view; the other prophetic, and needing, after the manner of the Old Testament prophets, a distinct naming of the author as a voucher for the marvellous revelations granted him. In particular, how often do we read in the Book of Daniel, so largely used in the Apocalypse, the words ‘I Daniel’ (chaps. Daniel 7:15, Daniel 8:27, etc.); why not also in the Apocalypse: ‘I John’?
(2.) The author, it is said, instead of calling himself an Apostle, only calls himself a ‘servant’ of Christ (chap. Revelation 1:1). But the other Apostles frequently name themselves in a similar way—St. Paul (Romans 1:1; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Galatians 1:10; Titus 1:1), St. James (chap. James 1:1), St. Jude (Jude Rev_1:1). Besides which, it may be truly said that St. John in the Apocalypse is writing less as an Apostle, whose word no one might despise, than as the ‘brother’ of all persecuted saints; a ‘partaker with them in the tribulation and kingdom and patience which are in Jesus’ (chap. Revelation 1:9). He was a suffering member of Christ’s body; so were they. In the furnace of affliction all had been welded into one.
(3.) Again, the writer speaks of the wall of the New Jerusalem as having ‘twelve foundations, and on them twelve names of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb’ (chap. Revelation 21:14); and such language, it is urged, is inconsistent with the humility which an Apostle would have displayed. But the words are no more than an exact echo of those of St. Paul when he tells us that Christians are ‘built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets’ (Ephesians 2:20); they express a fact borne witness to by our Lord’s selection of the Twelve to be the first proclaimers of His kingdom; and no one who recalls the light in which the ‘Lamb’ is always set before us in the Apocalypse, can for a moment doubt that the glory of the Apostles of whom the writer speaks did not lie in anything in themselves, but in the fact that they were ‘Apostles of the Lamb.’
The above objections are trifling. We turn to one or two of a more important character, drawn from the language, the spirit, and the teaching of the book.
(1.) The language and style. That these are confessedly so different from the language and style of the other Johannine writings contained in the New Testament, has constituted a difficulty from very early times. Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria in the middle of the third century, and a pupil of Origen, dwelt upon them with an acuteness which has not been surpassed by any later critic; and it can hardly be alleged that down to the present hour the difference has been satisfactorily explained. The idea of some, that it is due to a certain harshness and roughness of expression which comes with later years, is at once to be set aside as not sufficiently supported by the general experience of literary men. Equally untenable is the supposition that the difference is to be accounted for by an increased familiarity with the Greek tongue, gained during a long residence at Ephesus; for, even granting that the Apocalypse was written twenty-five years before the Gospel, its peculiarities of style are not such as spring from a writer’s ignorance of the language in which he writes. More than to either of these explanations must we resort to that which would trace the difference in some cases to design, in others to imitation of the Old Testament Prophets. The student of the original will at least easily mark that those solecisms of grammatical construction which so often startle him are by no means carried through the book. In the case of the very particulars for which he is blamed, the writer shows by numerous instances that he is as well acquainted with the Greek language as his critics, and he forces on us the impression that he has adopted the anomalies complained of because, for one reason or another, he thought them adapted to his aim. They cannot, therefore, when compared with the easy sentences of his Gospel and Epistles, form a sufficient ground for denying identity of authorship.
On the other hand, it is impossible to compare the different writings of which we speak without coming into contact at almost every step with something or other that takes us directly to the Gospel or Epistles of St. John. Many of the favourite words of the latter books, such as ‘to give,’ to ‘witness,’ to ‘tabernacle,’ ‘to keep,’ ‘to overcome,’ ‘name’ as the expression of character, ‘true’ in the sense of real, meet us in the Apocalypse in a way found in no other book of the New Testament, while the figurative language employed has not unfrequently its germ in such figures as those of hungering and thirsting, of the manna and the living water, of the shepherd and the sheep, which are so familiar to us in the Gospel.
(2.) Similar remarks apply to the tone and spirit of the Apocalypse, as compared with those of the Fourth Gospel. Instead of a difference here, we venture rather to assert that no two books of the New Testament more closely resemble one another in these respects than the two in question. The contrary impression has arisen from mistaking the real character of the Gospel. That that Gospel is in one of its parts—chaps, 13-17—full of a blessed calm is undoubtedly the case; but the chapters now referred to do not constitute its most characteristic part. Its main section is that which extends from chap. 5 to chap. 12 (see Introd. to the Gospel in this Commentary, ii. p. 27); and this, so far from being calm, contains the most severe and sustained polemic against ‘the Jews’ to be found in any of the Gospels. There, if anywhere, we meet the Redeemer of the world in the very character in which He appears in the Apocalypse, the Prophet of righteousness, the unsparing Exposer of sin, the Judge of men. On the other hand, nothing can exceed the tenderness and soft and gentle beauty of many parts of the Apocalypse, such as chaps, Revelation 7:9-17, Revelation 14:1-5, Revelation 19:5-10, Revelation 21:10-27. The more the two books are compared with one another, the more will the groundlessness of the objection which we are now considering appear.
(3.) But if this may be said of the tone and spirit of the Apocalypse when compared with the Gospel, it may certainly be said (to at least an equal extent) of its teaching. On all the most important doctrines of the New Testament nothing could be more complete than the harmony between the two books. More especially may this be seen in their teaching regarding the Person, the Death, and the Resurrection of our Lord, or regarding the moral freedom and the final destiny of man. This resemblance, too, is the more striking when we observe that it may be traced not simply in regard to the substance of these great doctrines, but in regard to certain aspects of them which are brought out in at least a similar way in no other part of the New Testament. Thus, as to the Person of our Lord, it is in both of them that He is so distinctively set before us as the ‘Word of God’ and as the ‘Lamb.’ His death and resurrection, again, are combined in the two, as both essential parts of one thought, with a closeness hardly met with elsewhere (comp. e.g. John 10:17 with Revelation 1:18). The remarkable prominence given in the Gospel, by the use of the verb ‘to will,’ to the freedom and responsibility of man (chaps, John 5:6; John 5:35; John 5:40, John 6:21; John 6:67, John 7:17, John 8:44, John 9:27, John 12:21) meets us also in the Apocalypse (chaps, Revelation 2:21, Revelation 11:5-6, Revelation 22:17); while at the same time there is combined with this in both the no less singular fact that they appear to speak of men as if from the first they were divided into two great classes, from the one of which there is no transition to the other. Lastly, the final destiny of man is set before us in both books in a manner that may be spoken of as peculiar to them, for in both the righteous are already judged, and have no part in the general judgment, which awaits the wicked (John 5:24; comp. Revelation 20:4; Revelation 20:11-15; and on this latter passage see Commentary). Our space does not permit us to enlarge upon these topics. We must content ourselves with urging that an impartial estimate of the doctrinal teaching of the two books before us will result in the conviction not only that they are in harmony with one another, but that they are so even when they present the truth in aspects of it found nowhere else.(1)
(1) We venture to refer, for a fuller exposition of some of these points than can be attempted here, to two articles by the present writer in the Contemporary Review for August and September 1871.
These considerations show that the argument against the Johannine origin of the Apocalypse, if the Fourth Gospel be accepted as Johannine, is destitute of any real foundation. There is something on the surface to favour it; there is far more beneath the surface to discredit and disprove it
One other point ought to be noticed. The attempt has been made by several writers, most recently by Keim (Geschichte Jesu von Nazara, i. p. 217, etc., Engl, transl.), to show that St. John cannot be the author of the Apocalypse, because he had never any connection either with Ephesus or with Asia Minor, and because in fact he, as well as all the other Apostles, had died before the destruction of Jerusalem. Could the premiss be established, the conclusion would almost inevitably follow. So intimately is the book associated with the churches of Asia, so directly do the early Fathers who ascribe it to the Apostle ascribe it to him in his supposed connection with that district, that if this latter opinion be a mistake the whole tradition of the early Christian Church can hardly escape being set aside as unworthy of reliance. A few words, therefore, upon this latest phase of the controversy seem to be required.
The texts supposed to prove the death of St. John before the destruction of Jerusalem are Luke 9:49 sq., Luke 9:51 sqq., Mark 3:17; Mark 9:38 sqq., to which are added, as showing that all the Apostles were dead before the Apocalypse was written, Revelation 18:20; Revelation 21:14. We can only recommend our readers to compare these texts with the conclusions drawn from them, that they may judge for themselves how flimsy are the foundations upon which not a little of that modern criticism rests which is so eagerly opposed to the traditions of the Church. The argument against any connection between St. John and Ephesus is more elaborate. It depends partly upon the statement that there is no mention of such a connection in several of those early documents in which we might naturally have looked for it, and partly on the endeavour to prove that Irenaeus, our chief authority upon the point, was led, ‘under the combined influences of misunderstanding and of the necessities of the times,’ to confound the ‘Presbyter John,’ of whom we have already spoken, with the far more important John the Apostle. It was of the former, not the latter, that Irenaeus had, while yet a boy, heard many memorable things from Polycarp; the former, not the latter, had been the ‘Lord’s disciple,’ had succeeded to the sphere of St. Paul’s labours in Asia Minor, had lived in Ephesus, had written the Revelation and the Gospel, and had died at a very great age in the reign of the Emperor Trajan. The first part of the argument obviously proves nothing. We have no right to fix beforehand what a writer is bound to say; and if we are to reject as false any statement of antiquity simply because, in the scanty remains of early ecclesiastical literature which have come down to us, some fragments may be discovered which do not mention it, there will be little left us to believe. The second part of the argument, relating to the supposed mistake of Irenaeus, has not even a shadow of probability to recommend it. It is inconsistent with the language of that Father when, in his letter to Florinus, he dwells with pathetic force upon the distinctness with which the events of youth impress themselves upon the memory. It is not less inconsistent with the fact that this supposed mistake of Irenaeus does not obtain the slightest support from any writer of the Church during the first 1700 years of her existence. It elevates into a great historical reality a presbyter of whom, if he ever existed, we know nothing but the name. And finally, it is at variance with one of the earliest, most continuous, and best authenticated traditions of the early Christian age. The connection of St. John with Asia and Ephesus, it is true, is not alluded to in the Acts of the Apostles or in the Epistles of St. Paul, because in all probability it did not begin until these books had been penned; but it is spoken of by a succession of ancient Christian writers, some of whom, from their official position in Ephesus itself, had the very best opportunities of being accurately informed; others of whom are our chief authorities for many of the most important facts of Christian antiquity. We refer to Apollonius, presbyter of Ephesus as early as the middle of the second century; to Irenaeus, to Polycrates bishop of Ephesus, to Clement of Alexandria, to Origen, and to the historian Eusebius. There is no need to speak of others. Upon few things, not mentioned in Scripture, can we rely with greater confidence than upon this, that the Apostle John was the head of the churches of Asia Minor before his exile to Patmos, and that after his deliverance from exile he returned to Ephesus, where he died.
From all that has been said it will, we trust, be manifest to our readers that the arguments, drawn chiefly from internal considerations, against the authorship of the Apocalypse by the Apostle John, are insufficient to shake the clear and decided testimony of antiquity, that the ‘John’ who speaks in it is no other than he is acknowledged to be by nearly all critics of the New Testament, including the most eminent of modem times, even the John who ‘leaned upon the Lord’s breast at supper.’
II.—DATE AND PLACE OF WRITING.
The inquiry as to the date at which the Apocalypse was composed is attended with considerable difficulty. Not, indeed, that the external evidence upon the point is again either defective or ambiguous, for there is no question of New Testament criticism in regard to which we have clearer or more definite statements from a very early period. But the internal evidence appears at first sight to conflict with the external; while, at the same time, it is thought by many to be so decisive that they are able to fix not only the year, but the very month and day upon which the writer beheld, if he did not also publish, his visions. Putting aside lesser and more unimportant differences of opinion, the main question is whether we are to assign the book to an early or a late date. Was it penned before the destruction of Jerusalem, in that case about A.D. 68; or does it belong to the close of the reign of Domitian, about A.D. 95 or 96? The latter view, which was universally prevalent in the Church from the earliest down to the most recent times, is founded chiefly upon a passage of Irenaeus in which that Father, in the Greek text preserved by Eusebius (H. E. v. 8), says that the Apocalypse ‘was seen by the Apostle no long time ago, but almost in our own generation, about the end of the reign of Domitian.’ It is unnecessary to consider attempts that have been made to find in this passage another subject for the verb ‘was seen’ than ‘the Apocalypse,’ spoken of immediately before. The meaning of the statement is simply indisputable; and we must either accept it, or allow (what may certainly have happened) that Irenaeus was mistaken. But Irenaeus was not likely to be mistaken. We have already had occasion to notice his intimate relations with Polycarp, the disciple of St. John himself; and the fact of the late date mentioned by him, one which in his opinion tended to explain the mysterious nature of the allusion to the number of the beast in chap. Revelation 13:18 about which he was writing at the time, was a fact which he would certainly not regard with either indifference or carelessness. Not only, however, is this the case. The opinion of Irenaeus was held also by Eusebius, who distinctly connects the banishment of St. John to Patmos with the time of Domitian, who even expressly mentions the fifteenth year of that emperor’s reign as the time (H. E. iii. 18, comp. Revelation 3:20), and who appears to depend for his authorities not on Irenaeus only, but on ‘the ancients’ (H. E. iii. 20). The testimonies of not a few of these ‘ancients,’ indeed, still survive, as of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Victorinus bishop of Pettau in Pannonia (see them in Canonicity, by Dr. Charteris); and, although they cannot be spoken of as equally distinct with that of Irenaeus, they are yet sufficient to show what was the accepted belief of the early Church in parts of the world distant from one another, and therefore likely to have received their information from independent sources.
Various considerations may be mentioned favourable to this conclusion. Thus the persecution under Domitian appears to have been much more widespread than that under Nero, by whom St. John must have been banished if the earlier date of the Apocalypse be correct. In this way it would be more likely to reach the Apostle, whom we have no means of connecting with Rome at the time, and who was in all probability far distant from that city. Again, there is evidence that under Domitian banishment was ‘a usual punishment’ (Speaker’s Commentary on the New Test. 4 p. 431), while evidence of a similar kind is wanting in the case of Nero. And, once more, the fact that the Apocalypse is addressed to the churches of Asia Minor agrees much better with the idea that it was written late in the Apostle’s life, than that it was written at a time when we have no proof whatever, but rather the reverse, that he was connected with that region of the Church. The last-mentioned consideration seems to us, indeed, worthy of more serious attention than, so far as we know, it has received. The point is this. The Apocalypse itself presupposes in its first three chapters an intimate connection between the writer and the Asiatic churches,—a connection, too, which it is hardly possible to think of in any other light than as one of affectionate authority on the side of the former, and of willing acknowledgment of such authority on the side of the latter. Besides which it is not to be forgotten that all the most important evidence for the authenticity of the book is so closely bound up with a belief in the connection spoken of, that, if this part of it be unworthy of trust, little dependence can be placed on any of its other parts. When, then, was the connection established? Certainly not before A.D. 62, for the Epistle to the Ephesians was written about that date; and, in conformity with his settled rule of action, St. Paul would neither have laboured in Ephesus, nor have written to Christians there, had St. John already established himself in that city (Romans 15:20). Nor could the connection have been formed between A.D. 62 and A.D. 68. The interval is too short to have produced the results belonging to it. Of the years after A.D. 68 it is unnecessary to speak. No one who rejects the late date thinks of any year immediately or shortly subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem. The force of this consideration ought surely to be more acknowledged than it has been by those who think that the Apostle did not leave the holy city till the very eve of its destruction. But critics of the negative school who maintain the authenticity of the Apocalypse ought equally to feel it. In exact proportion as they imagine St. John to have been animated by a narrow Judaic instead of a wide Christian spirit, must they allow that he could hardly, before the fall of Jerusalem, have extended his interest and his sphere of action, as he must have done before he could write the first three chapters of the Apocalypse. Nothing is more unlikely than that as early as A. D. 68 a person, animated by a spirit so exclusively Judaic as that attributed to the Apostle, should have formed such ties to churches in a Gentile land, and composed very largely at least of Gentile converts, as to lead him to select seven of them to be representatives of the one universal Church of Christ.
It has, indeed, been sometimes urged that the voice of antiquity is not so much in favour of a late date for the Apocalypse as might be supposed from the above remarks. Theophylact has been quoted for the statement that St. John was an exile in Patmos thirty-two years after the Ascension, and that there and then he wrote his Gospel. Even though this statement were correct, it would not follow that the Apocalypse was written at the same time. We only learn from it that Theophylact believed the exile to have taken place under Nero. But the grounds upon which he rested his belief are not given; and, in their absence, it is sufficient to say that a writer who lived at the close of the eleventh century has no authoritative voice in an inquiry of this kind. Again, the statement that St. John was banished under Nero is found in the preface to one edition of the Syriac version of the New Testament; but this preface is generally supposed to belong to the sixth century, and is thus, not less than the statement of Theophylact, destitute of any peculiar weight. Finally, it is hardly necessary to allude to the statement of a treatise, professing to be the production of Dorotheus bishop of Tyre, but also ascribed by later scholars to the sixth century, that the Apostle was exiled under Trajan. Apart from the date to which the statement belongs, it is in itself so chronologically improbable, as well as so much at variance with all the other evidence of antiquity upon the point, that no importance whatever can be attached to it.
In the circumstances now mentioned it is obviously unfair to speak of the ‘absence of external evidence’ (Davidson, Introd. vol. i. p. 348, 1st ed.). More definite and clear evidence of that kind it would not be easy to imagine. If any other conclusion than that which asserts the late date of the book before us is to be adopted, it must rest upon overpowering evidence supplied by its own contents.
Such evidence, it is not to be denied, is supposed by the greater number of modern inquirers to exist. Not only scholars of the negative school, but many writers of the present day, eminently distinguished both for sobriety and reverence of spirit, accept it as decisive. Some consideration therefore must be devoted to this point. The evidence relied on may be said to resolve itself into two branches, the interpretation of particular texts, and the general character of the contents and style of the book.
As to the first of these, it is urged by Hilgenfeld that passages such as chaps, Revelation 6:9; Revelation 6:11, Revelation 16:6, Revelation 17:6, Revelation 18:24, Revelation 19:2, refer to the persecution of the Christians by Nero (Einl. p. 447); but a moment’s attention to them is sufficient to show that they are equally applicable to any persecution of Christians whatsoever, and that there is absolutely nothing to connect them with Nero rather than Domitian. Chap. Revelation 11:1-2 is confidently referred to as showing, partly, that the temple must still have been in existence when the words were written; partly, that the Jewish war which began A.D. 66 must then have been in progress, inasmuch as the writer expects that Jerusalem and the outer court of the temple will be destroyed by the heathen. It is sufficient to reply that the inferences can be accepted only on two suppositions, both of which are certainly incorrect. First, that certain parts of the prophecy, the measuring reed and the measuring, the two olive trees, the two candlesticks, and the beast, are symbolical; but that the temple, the altar, the court, the holy city trodden under foot by the Gentiles, the 42 months and the 1260 days, are literal (Macdonald, Life of St. John, p. 159). We have not space to discuss these matters in detail. It is obvious that a line of distinction, thus arbitrarily drawn between what is literal and what is symbolical, leaves it in the power of an interpreter to make anything that he pleases of the prophecy. Besides which the prophecy was not upon this view fulfilled. Jerusalem was not trodden under foot of the Gentiles from the moment when ‘Vespasian appears to have received his commission from Nero,’ but from the moment when the city was taken; and it is no sufficient answer to the non-fulfilment of other parts that we have here ‘an example of a prophecy which contains at the same time the only history or notice of the events by which it was fulfilled.’ The measuring, too, upon the view now combated, must be understood of destruction, whereas the analogy of the Old Testament requires that we refer it to preservation. The truth is that the whole passage is symbolical, and that, as we shall endeavour to show in the Commentary, the symbolism is founded not on the thought of the Herodian temple at all, but on that of the tabernacle (see on chap. Revelation 11:1; Revelation 11:19). Be the foundation of the symbolism, however, what it may, the writer has manifestly in his eye the spiritual temple, the true Church of Christ, which was to be preserved while all false professors were to be cast out. The second unfounded supposition upon which the view that we are now combating proceeds is, that the writer, a fanatical Jewish-Christian, anticipated in the very first stage of the Jewish war the fate here spoken of for the greater portion of the temple buildings and for the holy city. He could not have done so. If uttering only his own expectations he could have entertained no idea but one,—that the Almighty would yet, as He had often done before, interfere on behalf of His ancient people, and guard the Zion which He loved. Or if, as is rendered probable by a comparison of Revelation 11:2 with Luke 21:24, he was proceeding upon the prophecy of Christ, how could he shut his eyes to the fact that, at a moment when all the buildings of the temple were before Him (Matthew 24:2), our Lord had said,* the days will come, in which there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down’? (Luke 21:6). The words of chap. Revelation 11:1-2 cannot be referred to the literal temple, without throwing the interpretation of the whole Apocalypse into confusion.
Still more importance is attached, by those who argue for an early date from individual texts, to chap. Revelation 13:1 compared with chap. Revelation 17:10-11, the general view of these verses (though the differences of different commentators are far from slight) being that the heads of the beast spoken of are emperors of Rome, that the head which was wounded to death, but whose deadly wound was healed, is Nero, about in popular expectation to return from the grave; and that, as the head which ‘is’ is either Galba or Vespasian, we may conclude with unerring certainty that the Apocalypse was written in the latter half of A.D. 68, or at least not later than the spring of A.D. 69 or 70. Dusterdieck even goes so far as to fix upon Easter day of A.D. 70, pre-eminently the ‘Lord’s day’ of the year, as that when the apocalyptic visions were beheld (Die Offenbarung, Einl. p. 53). A full answer to such conjectures can only be given after the passages referred to have been studied. It must be enough in the meantime to reply that the argument proceeds upon what we have endeavoured to show in the Commentary is a mistaken supposition, that the ‘kings’ spoken of are individuals, not national powers, and that the Seer expected the return of Nero from the dead to take vengeance upon Rome. Let the false exegesis involved in these conclusions be abandoned, and it will be seen that there is nothing in the passages before us inconsistent with the idea of the later date. As has been well said by Dean Alford, ‘Those whose view of the prophecy extends wider, and who attach a larger meaning to the symbols of the beast and his image and his heads, will not be induced by such very uncertain speculations to set aside a primitive and, as it appears to them, a thoroughly trustworthy tradition’ (Prol, to Rev. § 2, 26).
Turning now from individual texts to general contents and style, it is urged that had Jerusalem been destroyed before the Apocalypse was written, the writer could not have failed to notice that event. To what end, we may ask, should he have specifically noticed it? He is not writing history, either past or future. He is gathering the general lesson taught by all history, by all the dealings of God, alike with His Church and her foes, both in previous ages and in his own time. The fall of Egypt or Nineveh or Babylon was equally suited to his purpose, but he makes no express mention of any of these catastrophes. He remembers them, he has them in many an incidental allusion distinctly before his eye, but he does not notice them as particular events, and he is satisfied with unfolding that principle of God’s dealings which their fall expresses. A similar remark may be made in regard to the destruction of Jerusalem. Nay, more. May we not venture to say that the book rather presupposes this destruction? It describes a state of things of which judgment upon Judaism is a leading feature. Not, indeed, that judgment falls upon Judaism regarded as distinct from heathenism, but the idea underlies the whole book that a degenerate Judaism is the emblem of all opposition to the truth, and that as such it is specially doomed to the judgments of the Almighty. Now it is one of the most marked characteristics of the Apocalypse that the writer proceeds upon facts, only catching their deep general significance, and extending and spiritualising them. Whence, then, did he gain the idea of the holy city being trodden under foot of the Gentiles (chap. Revelation 11:2); whence, still more, the idea of Babylon, the same as false Jerusalem, being burned (chap. Revelation 18:9)? No answer can well be given, except that it was from the destruction of Jerusalem. That terrible scene of desolation is present to his mind. He seems to ‘stand afar off,’ and to see ‘the smoke of the city’s burning.’ The thought of it supplies him with some of his most terrible imagery; and, in the judgment executed upon her, he beholds the pledge and the type of that still wider judgment which shall be immediately accomplished upon all the enemies of God by Him who cometh quickly.
Once more, it is urged with no small degree of plausibility that both the style and tone of thought in the Apocalypse lead to the impression that it must belong to the earlier rather than the later period of the Apostle’s life. Of the first of these two points we have already spoken, and we can now only repeat that a space of twenty-seven years spent in Ephesus, where the Greek tongue would be more used than in Jerusalem, offers no adequate explanation of the peculiar style of the book before us. Its solecisms are not such as proceed from ignorance of the Greek language, and they would not have been removed by greater familiarity with it. However we may attempt to account for them, they are obviously designed, and rather imply a more accurate knowledge of the grammatical forms from which they are intentional departures. At the same time, there are passages in the book (as, for example, chap. 18) which, in their unsurpassed and unsurpassable eloquence exhibit a command of the Greek tongue on the part of the writer that long familiarity with it would best explain, were explanation necessary. As to the second of the two points above alluded to, there is no reason to think that the heat and fire which appear in the tone of thought belonged only to the Apostle’s youth. We know, indeed, that the contrary was the case. The stories handed down to us, such as that of St. John and the young robber, connected as they are with the later period of his life, show that to its very end there burned in him the same fervour of passion which would have called down fire upon the Samaritan village; and, in the prefatory remarks to the Fourth Gospel in this Commentary, we have already called attention to the fact that that Gospel, belonging by the acknowledgment of all who receive it to St. John’s closing days, reveals a tone of thought which emphatically marks its writer as a ‘son of thunder’ (Introduction, p. 15). Finally, if it be said that the Jewish imagery of the Apocalypse belongs more naturally to St. John’s earlier than to his later years, it ought not to be forgotten that by no writer of the New Testament does the intimate connection between Judaism and Christianity seem to have been so deeply felt. To the very last, the key-note of the whole Christian system was contained for him in the Saviour’s words, ‘Salvation is of the Jews’ (John 4:22). Jesus was not a new light; He was only the fulness of the light which had partially shone in prophecy (John 1:8-9); He was not simply the Son of God, He was the King of Israel (John 1:49). Old Testament thoughts and figures appear with remarkable copiousness throughout the Fourth Gospel; and the use of them in the Apocalypse is not greater than admits of easy explanation, by thinking of the prophetic nature of the book and of the class of literature to which it belongs.
Reviewing the whole question of date, it appears to us that the internal evidence supposed to be in favour of an early date is not sufficient to overthrow the strong and clear external evidence in favour of a late one. We allow at once that were it not for the latter the book would naturally produce the impression that it belonged to the first period of St. John’s life rather than its last. Yet a mere impression of this kind might, it will be allowed, be easily enough wrong; and when we are once led by any evidence to incline towards the opposite conclusion, it is not difficult to see in the book itself much that favours it. Notwithstanding, therefore, the current opinion to the contrary, we must express our conviction that the exile in Patmos and the composition of the Apocalypse belong to the reign of Domitian, not of Nero; and consequently, when the statements of Irenaeus and Eusebius are taken into account, to the year A.D. 95 or 96.
Little need be said as to the place where the Apocalypse was written. On the supposition, every way probable notwithstanding the doubts of some recent critics, that St. John returned to Ephesus after his banishment, the question can only lie between this city and Patmos itself. The past tenses used in chap, 1, ‘gave,’ ‘sent,’ ‘was,’ etc., are distinctly in favour of the former, and we conclude therefore that our book was written at Ephesus.
III.—Design and General Characteristics.
Having spoken of the authorship and date of the Apocalypse, as well as of the place where it was written, it will now be proper to turn more directly to the book itself, with the view of gathering from it one or two particulars as to the author’s design and the general characteristics that mark his work. These particulars are of importance in helping us to understand him, and they are intimately connected with the views of his meaning taken in the following Commentary.
1. Of the design it will not be necessary to say much. It is to encourage and strengthen the Church during the period which was to elapse between the close of direct revelation and the second coming of her Lord. That period had been described by Jesus Himself, especially in His last discourses, as one of great difficulty and trial to His people. He had indicated to them in the plainest manner, and in many a different form of expression, that they would not then enjoy prosperity and ease. On the contrary, the sufferings which He had experienced would be repeated in the experience of all the members of His Body. The Bridegroom would be taken away from the children of the bridechamber, and they who were thus deprived of Him would fast in those days. They would have to contend both with outward persecution and with inward degeneracy and apostasy. Men’s hearts would faint for fear, and for expectation of the things that were coming on the earth. The very powers of heaven would be shaken. The Book of Revelation, then, was designed to cheer and animate the Church through these days of darkness, and to point out to her more clearly than had yet been done the nature of the position she was to maintain, of the contest she was to wage, of the sufferings she was to endure, of the triumphs she was to win, and of the glorious inheritance that was to be bestowed upon her at the last. It was to let her know that she had not been launched upon an ocean of unanticipated trials, but that all had been foreseen by her Divine and watchful Guardian, and that she might rest in the assurance that, followed by the eye of Him who holdeth the winds in the hollow of His hand, she would in due time be brought into her desired haven. In particular, the ultimate theme of the book is the return of the Saviour, and His receiving His people to Himself, that where He is there they may be also. ‘Yea: I come quickly,’ is the voice that runs through it: ‘Amen: come, Lord Jesus,’ is the answer which it is intended to awaken in the believing heart. This general object has been recognised by all interpreters, and it need only be added more distinctly that it was not a local or a temporary one. It must, of course, be at once allowed that the book had a special application to those in whose hands it was first placed, and that the peculiar circumstances of Christians at the time when it was written determined both its object and its imagery. The same thing has to be said of all the other books of the New Testament. But in the case of none of them is the universal reference so clear as in that of the Apocalypse. No competent inquirer will deny that the seven churches of Asia represent the universal Church. The apostle, too, did not know when the end would be; and he could not have forgotten the words in which Christ Himself had said, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father hath appointed by His own authority’ (Acts 1:7). As he looked abroad, therefore, upon the trials of the Church in his own day, and beheld trial continuing to be her portion in this world to the end, it could not be otherwise than his design to supply her with comfort as abiding as her sorrow. To whatever extent he would first of all instruct and console the Christians around him under trials that may have been peculiar to them, it is impossible not to allow that he desired to supply instruction and consolation in equal measure to Christians under other trials and in other days.
2. Turning from the design to the general nature of the book, what has been said may prepare us for some of those characteristics of it which must be fixed distinctly in our minds, if we would either comprehend its meaning or render to it that justice which it has been so frequently refused.
(1.) It is a book which deals with principles rather than with particular events. The same remark, indeed, is applicable to all the prophetic books of Scripture, for these are for the most part occupied with principles that are generally, even universally, fulfilling themselves in human life. They were written to call men’s attention, not so much to the mode in which at some remote point of time events then to happen would embody their fulfilment, as to direct them to that scheme of the Divine working which continually reappears in history. They are a proclamation of eternal truths,—of the sovereignty of God, of His superintendence of the world, of His approbation of good, of His hatred of evil, of the fact that, notwithstanding all the apparent anomalies around us, He is conducting to final triumph His own plan for the establishment of His righteous and perfect kingdom. To have clothed such truths in language corresponding in minute details with particular incidents of the future, would have deprived them of their most important characteristic, would have exhausted their meaning in one fulfilment, and would have weakened the force of those lessons which they have for all ages and all circumstances. It is well, therefore, that prophecy should be uttered to a large extent in general language. No doubt the difficulty of applying it with universal consent to special incidents is thus increased. The men of one age see it fulfilled in what is passing around them; the men of another age do the same; till, in almost exact proportion as ages increase in number, interpretations multiply. Then the scorner cries, Behold the folly of endeavouring to interpret prophecy at all; each interpreter has his own interpretation; and, as these interpretations cannot all be true, the probability is that all of them are false, and that the decision of the question is beyond our reach. No language can be more mistaken. In a certain sense each of the interpreters spoken of was right. He was right in seeing the events of his own day unfold themselves in a manner corresponding to the prophecy; and had he merely said, Here is a fulfilment of it, he would have been able to justify his conclusion. His error lay in saying, Here is the fulfilment, as if no other fulfilment had ever been or were to be.
These remarks, applicable to all prophecy, apply with peculiar force to the Revelation of St. John. It is a book in which the general principles of good and evil, together with the judgments of God that follow them, are set in the most direct opposition to each other. The struggle between these two principles marks all time. It returns in every age, and God is always the same God of judgment. So far, then, as is consistent with fair interpretation, we must desire to see the prophecies of this book fulfilling themselves continually, and, as the struggle between good and evil deepens, in continually increasing degree. This, however, we could not do, did they not possess that generality of character which is so closely connected with a figurative style. A definite disclosure of names and years would have brought them into relation with one period alone.
(2.) The figurative and symbolical style of the Apocalypse is intimately associated with the position, the training, the habits, and the purpose of the writer. The Apostle had been a Jew, in all the noblest elements of Judaism a Jew to the very core. We know it from what is told us of his history in the Gospels; we know it not less from numerous little marks which stamp the Fourth Gospel, penned by him, as one of the most genuine productions of a Jewish mind. It is true, no doubt, that we do not meet in that Gospel such figures as we meet in the Apocalypse. The difference is easily explained. In the former, St. John was writing narrative and describing fact. In the latter, he is looking with prophetic eye into the future; and what more natural than that, when he does so, he should adopt the method and the style of those old Prophets whose work had been the glory of his nation, and whose words had fed the loftiest and brightest hopes of his own heart? We may expect that everything written by him from such a point of view will breathe the very essence of Old Testament prophecy, will be moulded by its spirit, be at home amidst its pictures, and be familiar with its words. Why consider this inexplicable? Why deny to a Christian Apostle the right of clothing his ideas in forms of speech sanctified to him by all that was best in the past history of his people, and, may we not hope, also sanctified to us? We do not make it an objection to Isaiah, or Ezekiel, or Daniel, or Zechariah, that they adopted in their communications with men the style which they actually employed. Yet the contents of their prophecies are substantially the same as the contents of that before us—an old and sinful world going down that a new and better world may take its place; the hatefulness, the danger, and the punishment of sin contrasted with the beauty, the security, and the reward of righteousness; the ever-present, though unseen, Ruler of the universe watching over His own, making even the wrath of man to praise Him, and guiding all things towards His own glorious issues. How could one who had fired his soul amidst these pictures of earlier days until he was ‘weary with forbearing and could not stay;’ who knew that man was the same and God the same in every age; who looked into the future and saw in it, under the light of the Incarnation, not a time entirely different from what had been, but the fulness of what had long since begun, the culmination of ages that had gone before,—fail to speak in the tones most familiar to him when he spoke upon such subjects? Or how could he fail to behold the world through the medium of figures that had till then had complete possession of his thoughts? These very figures of the Apocalypse, the symbols that it employs, the language that it speaks, are a testimony to the thorough reality of the writer, to the depth of his convictions, and to the profoundness of the emotions with which his soul was stirred. Then, again, we ought to remember that he was addressing persons familiar with his style of thought. The Old Testament was the Bible of the Church. The books of the New Testament had not yet been gathered into a volume. Some of them may not have been written. The Christian Church, even among the Gentiles, had been grafted upon the stem of David. It had an interest in Zion and Jerusalem; it saw in Babylon the type of its enemies; it felt itself to be the true Israel of God. The language and figures of the Apocalypse were, therefore, closely adapted to its condition, and must have gone home to it with peculiar power.
(3.) In connection with the symbolical nature of the Apocalypse, and with what has just been said, it is worth while to take more particular notice of the extent to which the symbols of the book are drawn from objects familiar to the writer and his readers. Thus we see him constantly laying the regions of Eastern nature under contribution for his purpose, and taking advantage of phenomena which, at least in the forms of their manifestation here employed, may be said to be almost peculiar to the East Lightnings, great thunderings, hail of the most destructive severity, and earthquakes, play their part. We read of the wilderness into which the woman with the man-child was driven; of the dens and rocks of the mountains in which the terrified inhabitants of earth shall hide themselves from the wrath of the Lamb; of the frightful locusts of the fifth trumpet-plague; of fowls that fill themselves with the flesh of men. In like manner we read of eagles, of the sound of the millstone, of olive trees and palm branches, of the vintage, and of the products of an Eastern clime—odours, ointments and frankincense, wine and oil. All these are directly associated with the locality to which the first readers of the book belonged. Even objects well known in other lands are viewed in the light in which the East, herein differing from the West, regards them, as when horses are presented to us, not so much in the magnificence as in the terror of their aspect; or as when the sea, instead of being the symbol of grandeur or eternal youth, time writing ‘no wrinkle on its azure brow,’ is spoken of only as the symbol of all that is dark or terrible.
Not only, however, does Eastern nature lend a multiplicity of figures to the Seer, the Old Testament does the same. How often does he refer to Israel and its tribes, to the tabernacle, to the temple with its pillars and incense, to the high priest’s robes, to the seven-branched golden candlestick, to the ark of the testimony, to the hidden manna, and to the parchment rolls written both within and on the back I Of his use of the Prophets we have already spoken, and it is only necessary to add that in employing them as he does he is not to be regarded as their servile imitator. If his correspondence with them be marked, his originality, his free and independent handling of his materials, is still more so. He evidently feels that although he and they are dealing with the same great theme,—the development of the kingdom of God,—he is called upon to deal with it in a higher stage of its progress than that known to them. Its issues were now both more swift in their execution and more mighty in their effects.
In connection with this point, it is interesting to observe that no symbol of the Apocalypse seems to be taken from heathenism. This is not the case with the other .New Testament writers, who do not hesitate to illustrate and enforce their arguments by considerations drawn from the customs of the heathen lands around them. But it is the case with St. John in the Apocalypse. The symbolism of the book appears to be exclusively Jewish. The ‘crown of life,’ spoken of in chap. Revelation 2:10, is not founded on the thought of the crown given to those who had been successful in the games of Greece and Rome, but on that of the crown of a king, of one admitted to royal dignity and clothed with royal splendour. The figure of the ‘white stone’ with the new name written in it of chap. Revelation 2:17 does not spring from the white pebble which, cast in heathen courts of justice into the ballot-box, expressed the judge’s acquittal of the prisoner at the bar, but in all probability from the glistering plate borne by the high priest upon his forehead. And all good commentators are agreed that the ‘palms’ of chap. Revelation 7:9 are not the palms of heathen victors either in the battle or in the games, but the palms of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, when, in the most joyful of all her national festivals, Israel celebrated that life of independence on which she entered when she marched from Rameses to Succoth, and exchanged her dwellings on the hot brickfields of Egypt for the free air of the wilderness and the ‘booths’ which she erected on the open country. (Comp. Trench On the Epistles to the Seven Churches.)
(4.) After what has been said, it will be at once granted that the symbols of the Apocalypse are to be judged of with the feelings of a Jew, and not as we should judge of symbolical writings in our own nation and age. No one will deny that in the symbols, alike of the Old Testament and of the book before us, there are many traits which, looked at in themselves, cannot fail to strike the reader as in a high degree exaggerated, extravagant, and out of all keeping with nature or probability. They are not conceived of according to the laws, as we consider them, of good taste; and they cannot, without seriously offending us, be transferred from the pages of the book to the canvas of the painter. Take even the sublime description of the one ‘like unto a Son of man’ in chap. Revelation 1:13-16, or of the Lamb in chap. Revelation 5:6-7, or of the New Jerusalem in chap. Revelation 21:16, and we feel at once in all these instances that nothing can be more out of keeping with the realities of things. This incongruity of imagery strikes us even more in the descriptions given of the composite animals in many of the symbols of the book, as in the case of the four living creatures of chap. Revelation 4:6-8, of the locusts of chap. Revelation 9:7-10, or of the beast of chap. Revelation 13:1-2. But the truth is that in all these cases the congruity of the figure with nature, or with notions of propriety suggested by her, was altogether unthought of. It is probable that the style of such representations had been introduced into Judea from Assyria, the wonderful sculptures of which exhibit the very same features,—almost entire ignorance of beauty of form, but massiveness, power, strength, greatness of conception in what was designed either to attract or overawe or terrify. The sculptor in Assyria, the Prophet in the Old Testament, and precisely in the same manner St. John in the Apocalypse, had an idea in his mind which he was desirous to express; and, if the symbolism effected that end, he did not pause for a moment to inquire whether any such figure either existed in nature or could be represented by art. As he felt, so did the spectator and reader feel. It was in their eyes no objection to the symbol that the combination of details was altogether monstrous. One consideration alone weighed with them, whether these details lent a force to the idea that it could not have otherwise possessed. When, therefore, we view the symbols of the Apocalypse in this light, and it is the only just light in which to view them, our sense of propriety is no longer shocked; we rather recognise in them a vivacity, a spirit, and a force in the highest degree interesting and instructive.
(5.) While this is the case, one other observation may be made. There is a natural fitness and correspondence between the symbolism employed in the Apocalypse and the truth which it is intended to express. In his choice of symbols the Seer is not left to the wildness of unregulated fancy, or to the influence of mere caprice. Consciously or unconsciously, he works within certain limits of adaptation on the part of the sign to the thing signified. It is here exactly as it is in the parables of our Lord, in which all the representations employed rest on the deeper nature of things, on the everlasting relations existing between the seen and the unseen, on that hidden unity among the different departments of truth which makes one object in nature a more suitable type or shadow of an eternal verity than another. Thus, as has been well observed by Auberlen, ‘The woman could never represent the kingdom of the world, nor the beast the Church. To obtain an insight into the symbols and parables of Holy Scripture, nature, that second or rather first book of God, must be opened as well as the Bible’ (Daniel and the Revelation, p. 87). The principle now spoken of is one of great importance, and what appears to be the correct interpretation of some of the symbols of St. John depends in no small degree on its being kept steadily in view.
IV.—STRUCTURE AND PLAN.
Before attempting to mark the divisions into which the Apocalypse seems naturally to fall, it may be well to notice what appear to be one or two of the leading characteristics of its structure and plan. The matter is not one of curiosity only; it has a very close bearing on the interpretation of the book. Of these characteristics we notice—
1. That the most important visions seem to be synchronous, not successive. We refer especially to the three great series of the Seals, the Trumpets, and the Bowls, which occupy by much the larger portion of the prophetic part of the work. These series indeed succeed one another, as it was absolutely necessary that they should, both in the visions of the Seer and in the apprehension of his readers. The former could not see, the latter could not apprehend, them all in the same moment. But it does not follow that on that account each successive series must present events posterior in time to those of the series preceding it. The same, or at least similar, events may be repeated in each series of visions, and the difference between them may be found only in the fact that they are looked at from different points of view. Such appears to be actually the case. Let us take the first series of visions, that of the Seals, and it is almost impossible to escape the conviction that in them we have events reaching down to the final coming of the Lord. The vision of the sixth Seal, in which we read ‘the great day of their wrath is come, and who is able to stand’ (chap. Revelation 6:17), can hardly refer to anything else. Then, after an episode, the seventh Seal follows, when there is ‘silence in heaven about the space of half an hour’ (chap. Revelation 8:1). The work of Christ is accomplished; His enemies are overthrown; and His elect have been gathered in. Let us next take the second series of visions, that of the Trumpets, and more particularly the words of chap. Revelation 11:15; Revelation 11:18. To what period can these words have relation except the great close of all? So that we are thus a second time conducted to the same point, and must regard the two series of visions as synchronous, rather than as historically successive. This conclusion is greatly strengthened when we turn to the third series of visions, that of the Bowls, which, like the two going before, is also ruled by the number seven. At the pouring out of the seventh Bowl in chap. Revelation 16:17, it is said that ‘there came forth a great voice out of the temple, from the throne, saying, It is done,’ while at Revelation 16:20 it is added, ‘and every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.’ These words in both cases surely lead us to the end. In the latter, indeed, they have the closest possible resemblance to those words of Revelation 20:11, which cannot be referred to anything but the final judgment. The view now taken derives great confirmation from the singular parallelism running through the judgments of the Trumpets and the Bowls, and exhibited in the following table:—
TRUMPETS RELATING TO
BOWLS RELATING TO
The earth, Revelation 8:7
The earth, Revelation 16:2
The sea, Revelation 8:8
The sea, Revelation 16:3
Rivers and fountains of the waters, Revelation 8:10
Rivers and fountains of waters, Revelation 16:4
The sun, and moon, and stars, Revelation 8:12
The sun, Revelation 16:8
The pit of the abyss, Revelation 9:2
The throne of the beast, Revelation 16:10
The great river Euphrates, Revelation 9:14
The great river Euphrates, Revelation 16:12
Great voices in heaven, followed by lightnings, and voices, and thunders, and an earthquake, and great hail, Revelation 11:15-19
A great voice from the throne, followed by lightnings, and voices, and thunders, a great earthquake, and great hail, Revelation 16:17-18; Revelation 16:21.
A simple inspection of this table must of itself be almost sufficient to convince us of the great improbability of the supposition, that the two series in question relate to events of an entirely different kind, and separated from one another by long periods of time. It is surely much more likely that they express the same dealings of the Almighty’s providence, though marked by certain points of distinction that we have still to notice.
Other illustrations may help still further to establish the truth of what has been said. Thus at the beginning of chap. 12 we have the vision of the woman clothed with the sun, and the bearer of a man-child who is to rule all nations with a rod or iron. This can be referred to nothing but the birth of Christ; yet it comes in after the visions of the Seals and of the Trumpets have both been closed,—a clear proof that the principle of structure here is not that of historical succession. Another striking instance of the same kind is afforded by the comparison of chap. Revelation 12:6 and chap, Revelation 12:14, where we have not two different flights of the woman into the wilderness, the two being only different aspects of one and the same flight.
These considerations, which might easily be illustrated at greater length, lead to the conclusion that in the main visions of the Apocalypse we have different series, not of successive, but of parallel and synchronous pictures, each series being complete in the particular line of thought presented by it, each being occupied not so much with events upon the temporal relation of which to one another we are to dwell, as with the presentation in a different light of the idea common to all the series. Something of the same kind may be seen in the parable of the wicked husbandmen in Luke 20:9-15, where a succession of messengers is sent by the owner or the vineyard to demand his portion of the fruits. The dominating thought in the three messages or the owner, and in the threefold reception given to them, is not that of succession of time, as if each rejection involved certain historical events following what went before. The same picture of criminality is rather the leading thought of all the three rejections of the owner’s message, though in each it is marked by special characteristics. So in the pictures of the Apocalypse of which we have been speaking there may be succession, even it may be in a certain sense succession of time: but it is succession of another kind altogether upon which we are invited to dwell. We are thus led to a second characteristic of these visions.
2. While synchronous rather than successive, they are at the same time climactic. In the parable of the wicked husbandmen, already referred to, climax in the guilt of those who rejected the just claims of the owner of the vineyard is distinctly traceable. In like manner the visions of the Seals, the Trumpets, and the Bowls, which constitute by far the larger portion of the Apocalypse, are not simply repetitions of the same thing. They are exhibitions of the same principle under different aspects, and the distinguishing feature of the difference is climax. This climax appears in the very selection of the objects by which each series of visions is characterized, and from which it is named. As compared with the first series, the second, by the simple fact that it is a series of Trumpets, indicates a higher, more exciting, and more terrible unfolding of the wrath of God upon a sinful world than was the case under the Seals. The trumpet is peculiarly the warlike instrument summoning the hosts to battle, and it thus connects itself with the judgments of God more closely than the seal (Jeremiah 4:19; Joel 2:1; Zephaniah 1:15-16). The bowl, again, was used in the service of the temple, and thus suggests, when it is made the instrument of judgment, a still more alarming idea of what the wrath of God will effect than is suggested by the trumpet. Besides which the supreme potency of the Bowls is distinctly expressed in the words by which they are introduced in chap. Revelation 15:1, where we are told of the plagues contained in them that they are ‘the last, for in them is finished the wrath of God.’ They are the consummation of all judgment, the most complete manifestation of Him who not only rewards the righteous, but condemns and punishes the wicked.
If, again, we look at the three groups of visions as wholes, the same principle of climax shows itself. The Seals describe to us judgments of God, and thus indeed imply the sinfulness of man, for otherwise there would be no judgment; there would be only ‘peace’ not a ‘sword.’ But this sinfulness of man is not brought to light, and judgments have not their specific reference to it unfolded. Even when we are bid see the souls under the altar, no more is said than that they had been slain for their adherence to the truth. The slaying itself had not been spoken of; while the different riders who come forth upon their horses are described as having ‘power given’ them to inflict judgment rather than as exercising that power. The series of the Trumpets marks an advance on this. It is not merely hinted now that the ‘souls’ had suffered on earth. We see them in the midst of suffering. They are brought before us, ere the series opens, as sending up their prayers out of their tribulation to Him who will avenge His elect (chap. Revelation 8:3-4). The judgments, accordingly, that now descend are a direct answer to these prayers. They are brought about by the fire of the altar upon which the prayers were laid being cast into the earth (chap. Revelation 8:5). This progress is continued in the Bowls; yet not so much in temporal, in historical, succession, as in wickedness, in deliberate and determined rejection of the truth. The world has advanced in sin. Prophecy has again been uttered ‘before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings’ (chap. Revelation 10:11). The faithful witnesses have witnessed and been slain, and have ascended up to heaven in a cloud; but they that dwelt upon the earth have only rejoiced over them, and made merry, and sent gifts one to another (chap. Revelation 11:10). The dragon, the beast, and the false prophet have successfully played their part (chaps. 12, 13). Therefore judgment falls, and falls naturally, with intensely increased severity.
Did our space permit, the point now before us might be very fully illustrated by a more minute comparison than was called for when considering our previous point, between the individual Trumpets and the corresponding Bowls. We can only advise our readers to make the comparison for themselves, when they will not fail to see how strikingly an increased potency of judgment is brought out under the latter.
Thus it is that we may mark a most important succession in these visions, and this even although each series extends over the whole period of the Church’s militant and oppressed history. There is a succession of a far more deeply interesting character than that of time, inasmuch as the successive series reveal to us ever deepening views of the conflict of the Church, of the opposition of the world to the truth, and of the judgments by which the sin of the world shall be visited.
3. In speaking of the structure of the Apocalypse, we have further to mark the symmetrical arrangement of its parts. We see this even in the Epistles to the seven churches in chaps. 2 and 3, which cannot be considered the most characteristic portion of the book. The composition of each of these Epistles upon the same plan is so obvious to every reader that it is unnecessary to enter into details.
When we turn to the body of the Apocalypse this symmetry of arrangement comes before us in a still more striking light. We have seven Seals, seven Trumpets, seven Bowls. Even these again are arranged symmetrically, the first four members of each group relating to earth, and a transition being made in each at the fifth member to the spiritual world. The table of comparison between the Trumpets and the Bowls, already given, may illustrate not only the parallelism, but the symmetry of the series. Still further it may be observed that, except in the case of the Bowls, the members of these series do not run on in uninterrupted succession to the end. There is a break between the sixth and seventh Seals, where we have presented to us the two visions of the sealing of the 144,000 and of the great multitude standing before the Lamb (chap. 7). Precisely in the same way we have a break between the sixth and seventh Trumpets, where we meet the visions of the little book and of the measuring of the temple, together with the action and fate of the two witnesses who perish in their faithfulness, but are triumphant in death (chap. 11). These are visions of comfort, episodes of consolation, obviously intended to sustain the soul in the thought of the last great outburst of the wrath of the Most High. It may, indeed, be asked why we have not similar visions between the sixth and seventh Bowls in order to complete the harmony? The answer to the question does not seem to be difficult. In this case the consolatory visions, those of chap. 14, consisting of the Lamb upon Mount Zion and of the harvest and vintage of the earth, precede not simply the seventh Bowl, but all the seven, because the Lord is now making a short work upon the earth. The element of climax, in short, overcomes at this point that of perfect regularity. It does this, however, only to a small extent, for the visions of consolation are still there. Finally, it may be noticed that of the seven parts into which the Apocalypse may be best divided the seventh corresponds to the first, the sixth to the second, the fifth to the third, while the fourth or main section of the book occupies the central place.
4. Before passing from the structure and plan of the Apocalypse, it may be well to mark the parts into which it most naturally divides itself. These appear to be seven in number.
(1.) The Prologue: chap. Revelation 1:1-20. The book opens with a general description of One of whom it is said that He was ‘like unto a son of man’ (ver. 13); and there can be no doubt that He who is spoken of is the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet it is peculiarly important to observe that the Saviour is here presented to us less in His eternal glory, than as the great King and Head of His Church on earth. He is not only ‘the first and the last;’ He says of Himself, ‘I was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore; and I have the keys of death and of Hades’ (ver. 18). Add to this the fact that all the particulars given of Him (vers. 13-16) are taken up again in chaps. 2 and 3, and are there brought into relation with one or other of those seven churches which, when united, set before us the universal Church, and we can have no hesitation in saying that in the Christ of this Prologue the Church is ideally included. In it Christ is one with His Church, and His Church is one with Him.
(2.) The presentation of the Church as she stands before us upon the field of human history: chaps. 2 and 3. That the seven churches to which the Epistles contained in these two chapters are addressed, represent the Church universal, as she extends throughout all lands, and is perpetuated in all ages, is a point which need not be discussed. All inquirers may be said to admit it. The object, therefore, of these chapters is to make us acquainted with what the Church is, alike in her strength and in her weakness, in her glory and in her shame, before her contest with her enemies is described.
(3.) General sketch of the issue of the Church’s contest: chaps. 4 and 5. We have no space to examine the opinions of others with regard to these two chapters, and must rest satisfied with indicating the light in which it seems necessary to regard them. It is obvious that they are no part of the conflict, a description of which is the main object of the book. The visions representing it begin only with chap. 6. They are pictures of an introductory nature, bringing before us the heavenly Guardians of the Church as they preside over her destinies, and the Church herself as, in their strength, she triumphs over all her foes. In short, having introduced the Church to us in chaps. 2 and 3, and having placed her on the field of actual history, the Seer would now give a representation of the victorious progress that awaits her in the conflict immediately to follow.
(4.) The contest of the Church with her enemies: Revelation 6:1 to Revelation 18:24. In this section we have the leading portion of the book; and its object is to bring the Church before us, both in the height of her conflict with her three great enemies, the devil the world and the false prophet, and in the security of her victory over them. It is impossible at the same time to mistake the progress by which these chapters are marked, until the last Bowls of the wrath of God have been poured out, and Babylon has been completely overthrown.
(5.) The rest of the true disciples of Jesus when their conflict is past: chap. Revelation 19:1 to Revelation 20:6. In this section the conflict described in the last section is over. There is no struggle now; there are only hallelujahs of praise. The great enemies of the Church have indeed to be cast out, and this is done with the two, the beast and the false prophet, who had been the vicegerents of the devil upon earth. Before the section ends they are plunged into the lake of fire, and the devil himself is bound for a season, that the Church may enjoy undisturbed repose and triumph.
(6.) The final conflict and victory of the saints: chap. Revelation 20:7 to Revelation 22:5. The rest of Christ’s disciples at the close of their great conflict was not yet permanent. The devil had been bound, but not for ever driven away. He is permitted to return and make a final attack upon ‘the camp of the saints and the beloved city.’ But the attack is unsuccessful He too is cast into the lake of fire, and the glory and happiness of God’s people is perfected in the New Jerusalem.
(7.) Epilogue: chap. Revelation 22:6-21. The concluding section of the Apocalypse brings before us the use to be made of the delineation given, and stirs up the Church to a more earnest cry than ever that her Lord would ‘come’ and accomplish all the promises of the book.
Such appears to be the most natural division of the contents of the Apocalypse. We can only, before passing to another point, ask our readers to compare it with what has been said in the Introduction to the Gospel of St. John with regard to the sections of that book (p. 27). The present writer has dwelt more largely upon the comparison of the two in the Expositor for Febr. 1883, p. 102, and to the paper there published he would direct those who are interested in the subject.
V.—Interpretation of the Apocalypse.
The remarks made in the two preceding sections of this Introduction on the general design and nature of the Apocalypse, as well as upon its structure and plan, have so far prepared the way for the principles upon which it is to be interpreted. It is necessary, however, to enter somewhat more fully into this point, for no book of Scripture has suffered so much from the variety of those systems of interpretation to which it has been exposed. To such an extent has this been the case, that many have been led to doubt whether anything like a definite interpretation is possible. Such a suggestion cannot be yielded to for a moment. If one thing be clearer than another, it is that the book was intended to be understood. Let us look at its title. It is ‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show unto His servants, even the things which must shortly come to pass’ (chap. Revelation 1:1). Let us listen to some of the earliest words spoken to the Seer by the glorious Person who appears to him. They are, ‘What thou seest write in a book, and send it to the seven churches’ (chap. Revelation 1:11). Or let us hear almost the last instructions of the angel when the visions of the book have ended, ‘Seal not up the words of the prophecy of this book; for the time is at hand’ (chap. Revelation 22:10); while, with still more pointed reference to the use to be made of it, the exalted Redeemer Himself declares, ‘I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify to you these things for the churches’ (chap. Revelation 22:16). The message of the Revelation, then, was not to be sealed up. It was to be spoken, to be testified, to man; and, if so, can any one for an instant doubt that it was to be listened to, to be apprehended, to be taken home, by man? The words, so solemnly repeated in each of the Epistles to the seven churches of Asia, may certainly be applied, if indeed it was not intended that they should be applied, to the whole of the book with which they are so intimately bound up, ‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.’
While it was thus the object of the Apocalypse to be understood, it ought not, upon the other hand, to be supposed that symbolical language is less the expression of thought, or that it is used with a less definite meaning, than any other language which a writer employs. Its details may indeed often elude our powers of interpretation; but this may arise from the fact that even to the Seer himself these details had no separate and individual force. Or, if they had, and we cannot understand them, we may yet be able to reach a sufficiently clear apprehension of the symbols as a whole.
The difficulty of interpreting the Apocalypse, therefore, lies neither in the intention of God nor in the character of the language. Much more than from either of these causes it has arisen from the fact that, owing to its peculiar nature, the book has lent itself in a greater than common degree to the theological polemic, and to the strifes of contending parties in the Church. Dealing with the fortunes of the people of God in this world, it has enabled all who considered themselves peculiarly His people, that is, almost every sect in turn, to launch its anathemas at the heads of others, and to see these others typified in the dark descriptions of which its pages are full Thus its sublimity has been marred and its beauty soiled; while its noble lessons, intended to inculcate the widest views of God’s superintending care of His whole Church, have been converted into catch-words which have not only alienated the world, but have even narrowed the hearts of Christian men. It is most consolatory to think that a new era has of late been opening for the Apocalypse. Recent interpreters, or writers on particular parts of it, have been distinctly approaching to a unanimity never before observed in regard to its interpretation. We may hope that the time is not distant when, under a well-regulated exegesis, the Apocalypse will lighten the dark places of the Church’s pilgrimage with a light as clear as that with which its visions, when originally seen, lightened the lonely rock of Patinos to the exiled Seer.
1. Of the systems of interpretation which have been applied to the Apocalypse, but which it is necessary to lay aside if we would profit from it, the first to be noticed is the Continuously Historical. We speak first of this, because it has probably its largest number of defenders in the British Islands and in America. The principle of the system is that the book is a predictive prophecy, dealing with specific events of history from the beginning to the close of the Christian era. All the greatest incidents, and, it must be added, some of the most trivial details, of the past or present (such as the red colour of the stockings of Romish cardinals) are to be seen in its prophetic page; and the pious mind derives its encouragement and comfort from the thought that these things were long ago foretold. Nor is there any reason why it should not do so were it possible to fix the interpretation. But the whole school of historical interpreters has been irretrievably discredited, if not by the extravagance or paltriness of its explanations, at least by their hopeless divergence from, and contradiction of, one another. Besides this, it has to be observed that to make the Apocalypse deal almost exclusively with these historical incidents belonging to the later history of the Church, is to make it a book that must have been useless to those for whom it was first written. How could the early Christians discover in it the establishment of Christianity under Constantine, the rise of Mahomedanism, the Lutheran Reformation, or the French Revolution? Of what possible use would it have been to foretell to them events in which they could have no interest? Would they have been either wiser or better if they had known them? Would they not have substituted a vain prying into the future for the study of those divine principles which, belonging to every age, bring the weight of universal history to enforce the lessons of our own time? Would it not have made particular events, instead of the principles of the Divine government of the world, the chief matter with which we have to concern ourselves? Nothing has tended more to destroy the feeling that there is value in the Apocalypse than this continuously historical interpretation of the book. The day, however, for such interpretations has passed, probably never to return.
2. A second system of apocalyptic interpretation which, not less than the former, must be set aside, is that known as the Preterist. By this system the whole book is confined to events surrounding the Seer, or immediately to follow his day, these events being mainly the overthrow, first of the Jews, and next of pagan Rome, to be succeeded by peace and prosperity to the Church for a thousand years. This system, the introduction of which in its completeness is generally ascribed to a distinguished Jesuit of the seventeenth century, seems to have rested partly on the opposition of the Church of Rome to that Protestant interpretation which regarded her as the apocalyptic Babylon, and partly on the statements of the book itself in chap. Revelation 1:1; Revelation 1:3, where it describes its contents as ‘the things which must shortly come to pass,’ and expressly states that ‘the time is at hand.’ Nor is it to be denied that there is a much larger element of truth in this system than in that continuously historical one of which we have just spoken. It may without hesitation be conceded that the Seer did draw from his own experience, and from what he beheld around him either fully developed or in germ, those lessons as to God’s dealings with the Church and with the world which he applies to all time. It may also without impropriety be allowed that he could have no idea that the Second Coming of Christ would be so long delayed as it has been, and that he may have thought of it as likely to take place so soon as events, already seen by him in their beginnings, should be accomplished. But it is impossible to admit that, whether or not he anticipated the length of time that was to elapse before the Lord’s return, he deliberately confined himself to the Church’s fortunes in his own day, and left unnoticed whatever of pilgrimage and warfare was still in store for her. The whole tone of the book leads to the opposite conclusion. It certainly treats of what was to happen down to the very end of time, until the hour of the full accomplishment of the Church’s struggle, of the full winning of her victory, and of the full attainment of her rest. We do not object to the Preterist view on the ground that, were it correct, it would make the Apostle speak only of events long since passed away and of little present interest to us. The same reasoning would deprive of permanent value much of the teaching of the New Testament Epistles. We object to it rather upon exegetical grounds. The Apocalypse bears distinctly upon its face that it is concerned with the history of the Church until she enters upon her heavenly inheritance.
3. A third system of apocalyptic interpretation known as the Futurist has still to be noticed, but noticed only to be, like the two preceding ones, set aside. The main principle of this system is that almost the whole, if not the whole, book belongs to the future, that the time for its fulfilment has not yet come, and that it will not come until the very eve of our Lord’s return. With an element of truth in it to which we shall immediately advert, it is obvious that this system, as a whole, is indefensible. It destroys one of the main purposes of the Apocalypse, which was to strengthen and encourage the Church at the moment when it was written. It robs it of no small part of its value for the Church in after ages, for how shall we know when the eve of our Lord’s return arrives? Nothing but the return itself, which is to take place like a thief in the night, can show when the eve was. The Church, therefore, upon this system, could never apply the events of the book directly to herself. She could never tell whether she was living in the last days of her history till the days were over. No doubt it may be said that a picture even of the future like that here presented may encourage. But a just exegesis of the book again comes in to prevent our supposing that we have only a picture of the future. The Church is addressed in her present circumstances, and is told what is to be done to her and for her at the instant when she reads the book, as well as at some distant day.
Yet there is an element of truth in the Futurist as well as in the Preterist scheme of interpretation. The book does belong to the time of the end, because that time is always, has always been, at hand. According to our modes of reckoning it may be delayed, but with God ‘one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as one day,’ and it is from the Divine point of view that the apocalyptic visions are presented to St. John. The Christian Church has been denied knowledge of the time when the Bridegroom will come, for this reason above all, that she may live in continual expectation of His coming, and so be at all times ready to meet Him. If she is always in the midst of her struggle, she may at the same time always believe that she is near its close. When, therefore, with the lessons of the Apocalypse she associates the idea that the cry is already going forth, ‘Behold, the Bridegroom cometh,’ she is only acting in the spirit of a book the distinguishing note of which is ‘I come quickly.’
The truth is, that both the Preterist and the Futurist system err in adopting too much of the principle which, on the continuously historical scheme, has been carried to such unwarrantable excess. The former is right, in so far as it recognises the fact that the Seer dealt, first of all, with the events of his own day, and gathered even his most general lessons from them. The latter is right, in so far as it lays emphasis on the fact that throughout the whole book the Lord is at hand. But both are wrong in so far as they imagine that the Apocalypse deals with specific events rather than great principles, and in so far as they fail to observe that the principles with which it deals are applicable not only at the beginning or end, but throughout the whole period of the Church’s history in this world. It is a mistake to imagine that the Church of Christ, in order to find comfort, must know the particular form which her trials will assume in any special age. To let her know this beforehand would, in many cases, be an impossibility; for in the nature of things an early age cannot, even if instructed, enter into the experiences of a later one, and so cannot conceive aright what may be the difficulties of the children of God in times long subsequent to itself. The Church knows enough if she is told that throughout all her earthly history her sufferings shall be those of her Lord, that at every point of it she will have to struggle with the world around her as He had to struggle with the world around Him; but that, however various her forms of suffering, her cup shall be no other than that of which He drank, and her baptism no other than that with which He was baptized. More than this is not only unnecessary; it might mislead. It might withdraw the Church’s thoughts from the great truth that she is to be the companion of Jesus in His sorrows, in order to make her engage her thoughts with those more particular events which it is not of the slightest consequence for her to know. The Preterist and Futurist systems forget this, and so lose sight of the universal applicability of the book to the Church’s fortunes.
Our readers will now easily understand that in the following Commentary the Apocalypse is not interpreted upon any of these three great systems. The book is regarded throughout as taking no note of time whatsoever, except in so far as there is a necessary beginning, and at the same time an end, of the action with which it is occupied. All the symbols are treated as symbolical of principles rather than of events; and that, though it is at once admitted that some particular event, whether always discoverable or not, lies at the bottom of each. All the numbers of the book are regarded also as symbolical, even the two horns of the lamb-like beast in chap. Revelation 13:11, expressing not the fact that the animal referred to has two horns (which it has not), but an entirely different meaning. The book thus becomes to us not a history of either early, or mediaeval, or last events written of before they happened, but a solemn warning to Christians that in every age they have to consider the signs of their own time; and that, if they are true to their profession, they will find themselves in one way or another in their Master’s position, and needing to be animated and comforted by the thought that, as He passed through suffering to glory, so shall they. In this sense the Apocalypse was most strictly applicable to St. John’s own day, but it has been not less applicable in every age since then, and it will continue to apply with equal force to all ages that may be yet to come before the end.
It is in this point of view that the present writer feels that the Apocalypse is of such inestimable value to the Church; and that he cannot but lament the prevalence of those false modes of interpretation which, as it seems to him, have reduced it from the high moral and religious level at which it ought to stand to that of a puzzle for the curious, or a storehouse of harsh epithets for the controversial It is strange to think that a book which points out to Christians how great must be their likeness to their Lord in all that ought to make them most humble-minded, most meek, and most forgiving, has been so often used as a means of fomenting spiritual pride and every form of uncharitableness. There is no book of Scripture which ought so much to soften the heart, to remind us that we are strangers here, and to lead us, through the thought of that contest with the world which we are so unwilling to face, into feelings of sympathy with all who are in any degree striving to exercise similar self-denial. But it will do this only when we see that the one thought upon which it rests, and which all its symbols are designed to impress upon us, is, that, as the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ in an evil world, our lot is to ‘suffer with Him,’ that with Him we may be also ‘glorified.’
Of the principles upon which this Commentary has been written, as well as of those upon which the text has been determined, it is not necessary to speak now. They have been already explained in the Introduction to the Gospel of St. John (p. 35); and it need only be added that the text of Drs. Westcott and Hort, as being in the opinion of the writer the best critical edition of the Greek New Testament that we possess, has been almost uniformly adopted. The influence of the Revised Version will also be traced throughout the Commentary; but this, in the circumstances, will be allowed to have been natural, if not indeed unavoidable. At the same time the text of that Version has been by no means slavishly followed.
The Author regrets that the limits to which he was confined have prevented so full a discussion of many points as he could have wished. He has been even not unfrequently compelled to give results without stating the grounds upon which they rest. This could not be helped. One effect of the limitation of his space may not be unacceptable to the reader. It has made it necessary to avoid quoting at any length the opinions of other commentators. On all disputed passages, and how numerous these are every student of the Apocalypse knows, the Author has endeavoured to come to an independent and definite conclusion.
This Introduction ought not to be closed without the Author’s expressing his sense of obligation to his friend and old pupil, the Rev. James Cooper, Aberdeen, to whom he is indebted for many valuable suggestions, as well as to another friend, also an old pupil, the Rev. Alexander Fiddes of the same city, who has given him great assistance in the correction of the press.
The University, Aberdeen,
the Second Week of Lent