Bible Commentaries

E.M. Zerr's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament


Book Overview - Revelation

by E.M. Zerr


General remarks. In approaching this book for the purpose of writing comments thereon, I am resolved not to resort to speculation or guesswork. True that should be one's purpose regarding every part of the Bible. But the various extremes to which so many would-be interpreters have gone make it especially important to observe this safety principle with this book. One extreme has the position that the book is a deep mystery that the Lord never intended to be understood. The fact that it is a part of the Sacred Volume and that He pronounces a blessing on those who read and hear and keep the things written therein ( Revelation 1:3) shows the error of this position. An opposite extreme is that it is "just as simple and easy as any other part of the Bible." At first thought one might not realize the evil of the statement, but it will be manifest by the manner of reasoning that is resorted to, in order to carry out what is thought to be required by the law of consistency. In pursuing such a course it is claimed that the prophecies of the book are literal and attempts are made to find such facts in the history of the world. This theory ignores the statement in Revelation 1:1 which says the book was revealed by being "signified" or by signs and symbols, which rules out literalism in explaining the book as a whole.

We should avoid both extremes mentioned above and seek an explanation that will be consistent with the facts and other truths that are available to us. A sign or symbol must stand for something that is literally true or else its use can accomplish nothing. We should understand, therefore, that the ones in this book point forward to facts that were destined to occur literally in the then future years-of the world. Since God knows the future as well as the present or past ( Isaiah 46:9-10) it was possible for Him to look forward from the time of John and see the events that would occur in the world, including those of the religious and political domains of human activities. It would be unreasonable to suppose that He would direct a' man to write a book with symbols which were not in harmony with the facts of history. The business of the student, therefore, is to read the symbols and then seek the explanation in the statements of authentic history. That is the task I have set for myself in writing a commentary on this book.

I shall here write a brief outline of the facts of history, to show the general program that has been and is now and will be carried out, in fulfillment of the predictions that John was told to write in the language of symbols. Many of the specific and detailed incidents of history will be reserved to be cited as the particular passages are reached in our studies. Among the sources of my information are the following: Ancient Monarchies, by George Rawlinson; Mommsen's History of Rome; Josephus' History of the Jews; Myers' Ancient History; Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon; Mosheim's Ecclesiastes History; Jones' Church History; Eusebius' Church History; and many others. Due to the wide field of historical material, it will not be expected that I can cite the actual text of the sources except in particular cases. The Roman Empire was at the height of its power in the time of Christ and the apostles, and continued so through several centuries. Religion was a state affair, being protected and regulated by the government under the direction of the emperor. That of Rome was the pagan or heathen and its worship was in devotion to idolatry. Other religions were tolerated as long as they did not become too conspicuous and did not show signs of interference with the state religion.

Among the religions tolerated was Christianity, started by Christ. and propagated by the apostles. At first it was regarded as an insignificant movement and little attention was paid to it by the leaders in Rome. But as it grew in numbers and influence the Empire began to fear for its effect on the state and tried to counteract it by persecution. After a few centuries the church or leaders therein began to grow corrupt, and they sought to concentrate their power with a view to reaching a condition where one man would dominate the entire brotherhood. This ambition for power was held back by the power of Rome whose religion was the pagan or heathen. But a change took place in this Empire that removed the hindrance. In the beginning of the fourth century the emperor was Constantine the Great. He finally professed to be converted to the Christian religion and accordingly gave it the endorsement of the Empire. That resulted in the union of church and state so that the emperor over the government and the bishop over the church, both of whom resided in the city of Rome, were joined in a mutual interest and hence took away the rights or privileges of both the local leaders in the congregations, and those of kings and governors over smaller sections of the Empire. There is a lengthy note under "General remarks" at 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17 which the reader should see again.

After the union of church and state was formed there followed a period of twelve centuries known as the apostasy or Dark Ages. During that time the Bible was virtually taken from the common people and everyone both in religious and civil matters had to bow to the dictates issued at Rome by the joint power of the emperor and bishop (who finally took the title of pope). This condition continued until the time of Martin Luther and the other Reformers, who gave the Bible back to their respective countries in the language of their people, resulting in the dissolving of the union of church and state. The preceding paragraphs give a general picture of what actually occurred according to history, and of course the symbols of the book of Revelation should be interpreted in a way that agrees with the facts of history. Various details and specific instances will be related as occasion arises in our study of the book. Before taking up the chapters and verses on the plan that has been followed throughout the Commentary, it should be noted that the symbolical part of the book of Revelation is included in chapters4through20. The three in the beginning and the two at the close of the book will be considered very much like the rest of the New Testament.