Hitherto our observations have been brief, because interpreters are very generally agreed in their views of the first series, the seals, in this interesting book of prophecy. The first six seals, covering the time of heathen Rome's opposition to Christianity, and before the Devil succeeded in enlisting the nominal church of Christ in his interest, do not therefore furnish occasion for much controversy among expositors. Besides, the seventh seal covers much more time than all the others. The first six refer to pagan Rome, and constitute the first period, properly styled the PERIOD OF THE SEALS. The seventh seal, introducing the trumpets, is the second period, called the PERIOD OF THE TRUMPETS. In attempting to unfold their mystical import, greater amplification will be indispensable.
1. And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.
v. 1.—"Heaven" is the ordinary symbol of organized society, whether civil or ecclesiastical or both. "Silence in heaven for half an hour," indicates public tranquillity, together with anxious and mute expectation of coming and alarming events. "Half an hour," a definite for an indefinite duration, as usual, imports that the repose hitherto enjoyed, shall shortly terminate. The respite which the saints enjoyed during the period succeeding the revolution indicated by the opening of the sixth seal, soon came to all end.
2. And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.
3. And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.
4. And the smoke of the incense. which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of, the angel's hand.
Vs. 2—4.—"Seven angels" appear to John as ministers "standing before God," ready to execute his commands. To them were given "seven trumpets."
Here, as all along hitherto, there is allusion to the former dispensation. Under the Old Testament, trumpets were constructed by divine direction and to be used for diverse purposes. Of the manifold uses of this instrument, that which is here chiefly intended is, to "sound an alarm." (Joel ii. 1; 1 Cor. xiv. 8.) Whilst all is suspense, and before the silence is broken by the sounding of the first trumpet, the worship of God is exemplified after the usual manner. An angel, by his official place and work easily distinguished from those having the trumpets, holds in his hand a "golden censer" that with "much incense" he might render acceptable "the prayers of all saints." As the angel who had the "seal of the living God," is distinguished from those that "held the winds," (ch. vii. 1;) so is he here, from those that had the trumpets. Here he appears as the Great High Priest over the house of God; and as "the whole multitude of the people were praying without, at the time of incense;" (Luke i. 10;) so the service of God is thus emblematically represented as conducted according to divine appointment. This Angel therefore is Christ himself. "No man cometh unto the Father but by him." He is the only Advocate with the Father; and through him "we have access by' one Spirit unto the Father." (Eph. ii. 18.)
May we not inquire, without presumption, a little into the nature or purport of the "prayers of all saints" at this time of ominous silence? And what could so likely be the burden of their petitions as that of the cry of the souls under the altar, namely, the destruction of the Roman empire? Surely this has been the prayer of God's persecuted servants in all ages:—"Pour out thy fury upon the heathen," etc. (Jer. x. 25; Ps. lxxix. 6.) However inconsistent with Christian charity superficial Christians may deem the law of retaliation; we shall find it often urged on our attention as exemplified in this book. It is absolutely essential to the divine government.
5. And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings and lightnings and an earthquake.
V. 5.—The Lord Jesus, in carrying out the designs of the divine mind, and executing the commission which he received from the Father as Mediator, appears in various characters. Whilst as a priest he intercedes for his people, and by the incense from the golden censer renders their prayers acceptable before God; as a king he answers their prayers by terrible things in righteousness. (Ps. lxv. 5.) This work of vengeance is vividly signified by scattering coals of fire on the earth. From the very same altar, whence the glorious Angel of the Covenant had received fire to consume the incense, he next takes coals, the symbol of his wrath, and scatters them into the earth. These "burning Coals of juniper" produce "voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake." "O God, thou art terrible out of thy holy places." (Ps. lxviii. 35; lxxvi. 12.) "The Lord our God is a jealous God." Our merciful Saviour once put a strange and startling question to his disciples:—"Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay."—For ends worthy of himself, the only wise God has unchangeably decreed that "offences must needs come," (Matt. xviii. 7;) and "there must be also heresies" among professing Christians. (1 Cor. xi. 19.) However, in the administration of providence, judgment without mercy awaits every nation to which the gospel is sent in vain. The voices, thunderings, etc., consequent upon the scattering of the coals, portended the calamities which would be inflicted upon men for their opposition to the gospel and cruel treatment of the saints, in answer to their prayers through the intercession of Christ.
6. And the seven angels, which had the seven trumpets, prepared themselves to sound.
V. 6. The "seven angels now prepare themselves to sound." The first alarm, of course: will put an end to the "silence." It should be noted that while each seal, when broken, disclosed so much of the roll of the book as was concealed by it; the seventh leaves no part unrevealed. The whole contents are laid open. It is otherwise with the trumpets. The reverberations of one may not have ceased when the next begins to sound. Thus, several may be partly cotemporary. Again, it may be questioned whether mankind are to be considered in civil or ecclesiastical organization as the formal object of the judgments indicated by the trumpets. Some expositors view the one, and some the other, as the object, and the contention has been sharp among them. We humbly suggest that neither is the formal object without the other, simply because the same individuals constitute the complex moral person. The correctness of this view is largely illustrated and abundantly confirmed in the subsequent. part of the Apocalypse. Provinces, nations, empires, are no farther worthy of notice in prophecy than as they affect the destiny of the church and illustrate the immutable principles of the moral government of God. He is known by the judgments which he executeth, and nations must be taught that "the heavens do rule." (Dan. iv. 26.) Although the church and the state are, by divine institution, distinct, not united; they are nevertheless co—ordinate, and always exert a reciprocal influence for good or for evil. It has been the policy of Satan to confound this distinction; and alas! with too much success in the apprehension of many. There are not wanting divines who boldly assert, that even among the Jews, under the Old Testament, "the church was the state, and the state was the church!" We may have occasion to notice hereafter, that this gross error and antichristian dogma, is yet entertained in relation to divinely organized society under the present New Testament economy!
The "voices, thunderings and earthquakes" resulting from the scattering of the coals, are the harbingers and precursors of coming calamities upon Christendom at the sounding of the trumpets. And these may be emblematical of the contentions, strife and divisions which accompanied the rise and prevalence of the heresy of Arius and the apostacy of the emperor Julian, during the time of comparative public tranquility from Constantine to Theodosius. The Church and the state, as one complex system, we have considered as the object of the judgments to be inflicted under the trumpets. These had, in fact, become incorporated, if not identified, under the reign of Constantine and his imperial successors. But assuming the correctness of the phraseology of secular historians and Christian expositors, when in a popular sense they speak of the Roman empire as the object of penal inflictions; we by no means agree with the latter class of writers, when they limit the empire to the geographical boundaries as it existed at the time of this prediction. This mistake, if not detected here, will materially affect and control our views of the whole subsequent part of the Apocalypse. Who would not discover the impropriety and absurdity of treating of events now transpiring within the empire of the United States, as if falling out within the limits of the original thirteen as they existed in 1776? But the Roman empire yet exists, and we have sufficient evidence that it will continue till the time of the sounding of the seventh trumpet, (ch. xi. 15.) Political bias has prevailed with one class of expositors to exempt the British empire from the stroke of God's wrath, symbolized by both the trumpets and vials. Others, from similar predilections, would exempt the United States and British Provinces from these plagues. Whilst a third class, giving fall scope to the hallucinations of mere imagination, aver their conviction that republican America is the special and doomed object of all these plagues!—Hence, the necessity of caution, sobriety, reverence for divine authority, reliance on the teaching of the Holy Spirit, whom the Saviour has promised to his humble disciples to "guide them into all truth, and to show them things to come." (John xvi. 13.) That the student of prophecy,—especially of the Apocalypse, may realize the fulfilment of this promise, it is indispensably necessary that he be absolutely untrammeled by all antichristian politics. Such cases are very rare, (ch. xiii. 3.)
During the reign of Constantine, that monarch had transferred the capital of the empire from the "city of seven hills" to another locality and founded another metropolis, which as the future seat of imperial rule, and to immortalize himself, he called after his own name, Constantinople. This ambitious enterprise itself virtually divided the empire, preparing the way for its total dismemberment by the trumpets. And now the "seven angels prepared themselves to sound," for all things are ready. The interceding Angel at the "golden altar'" has prevailed to obtain a period of tranquility whilst preparatory steps are in progress towards the next series of events; but that time shall be no longer, or respite from impending judgments, is significantly intimated by the symbolical Angel casting his "golden censer" from his hand, and hurling it into the earth. Then without farther delay,
7. The first angel sounded, and there followed hall and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.
V. 7. "The first angel sounded." The object of this judgment is the earth, the population of the empire in general. The judgment itself is, "hail and fire mingled with blood,"—desolating wars, like successive storms of hail mingled with lightning, "hailstones and coals of fire." (Ps. xviii. 12.) The effect is, a consumption of a third part of the "trees and grass;" people in high and low degrees. Green trees and grass are the ornaments and products of a land: and when the earth is an emblem of nations and dominions, trees and grass may represent persons of higher and lower rank.
The careful student of the Apocalypse will discover a striking analogy between the effects of the trumpets and vials as the latter are presented in the sixteenth chapter. This first trumpet therefore produces an effect upon the social order of Christendom, which will continue till the pouring out of the first vial. As the Roman empire in its twofold division is the general object of all the trumpets; so the first four are directed towards the western, and the next two against the eastern member.
The infidel historian Gibbon has unwittingly recorded the fulfilment of these predictions, as Josephus has done those of our Lord respecting the destruction of Jerusalem. Unconscious that he was bearing testimony to the truth of prophecy, Gibbon used with his classic pen the very allegorical language of the inspired apostle. Respecting the incursion of the barbarous Goths, as led by Alaric their chief into the fertile plains of southern Europe, he describes their alarming descent as a "dark cloud, which having collected along the Coasts of the Baltic, burst in thunder upon the banks of the upper Danube." He who directed Balaam and Caiaphas to utter predictions, doubtless could direct Josephus and Gibbon to attest the truth of prophecy; and this may be one of the many ways in which "he makes the wrath of man to praise him."—The Goths, the Scythians and Huns, first under Alaric and afterwards under Attila, those savage warriors from the northern regions, invaded the provinces of the Roman empire in both sections, carrying all before them like an irresistible tornado,—with fire and sword utterly destroying cities, temples, princes, priests, old and young, male and female,—thus "burning up trees, and green grass."
8. And the second angel sounded, and as it, were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea; and the third part of the sea became blood:
9. And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.
Vs. 8, 9.—"The second angel sounded." The object of this judgment, is the sea. As a great collect—tion of waters, this symbol is explained, (ch. xvii. 15.) "Peoples, and/multitudes, and nations, and tongues," indicate the population in an agitated and disorganized or revolutionary condition. The judgment is a "burning mountain," a tremendous object,—consuming and being itself consumed. The mountain is a symbol of earthly power civil or military, and sometimes ecclesiastical.—"Who art thou, O great mountain?" (Zech. iv. 7.) The Almighty says to the king of Babylon,—"Behold, I am against thee, O destroying mountain ...... I will roll thee down from the rocks, and will make thee a burnt mountain." (Jer. li. 25; Ps. xlviii. 2.)
The consequence of this judgment is, the third part of the sea became blood, the fish perished, and the shipping was destroyed. Similar language, illustrating these figurative expressions, had been used by the prophets to represent divine judgments denounced against Egyptian power. (Ezek. xxix. 3, etc.) In the eighth verse is contained the explanation of the symbolic language, "Behold I will bring a sword upon thee, and cutoff man and beast from thee."
History verifies this part of the Apocalyptic prediction., Only two years after the death of that northern "scourge of God," Attila, who boasted that "the grass never grew where his horse had trod;" Genseric set sail from the burning shores of Africa; and, like a burning mountain launched into the sea, accompanied by a vast army of barbarous Vandals, suddenly landed his fleet at the mouth of the river Tiber. Disregarding the distinctions of rank, age or sex, these licentious and brutal plunderers subjected their helpless victims to every species of indignity and cruelty. Hence the hostility to arts and science, the tokens of refined civilization, indiscriminate devastation of life and property perpetrated by the savage warriors, has given rise to the word "Vandalism."
10. And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
11, And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
Vs. 10, 11. The object of the third trumpet is the waters as before,—the population of the empire, but not in collective form as a sea; rather in a state of separation or disconnected, as "rivers and fountains." Some apply this symbol of a "falling star" to Genseric, but this is incongruous. On the contrary, he was a victorious prince,—a rising star. It is more consonant to the truth of history and the chronological series of prophecy, to apply this symbol to the downfall of Momyllus the last of the Roman emperors, who was deposed by Odoacer king of the Heruli, called in derision Augustulus, the diminutive Augustus. Doubtless the allusion here is to the king of Babylon:—"How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, (day—star,)son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!" (Isa. xiv. 12.) A star may indeed signify either a civil or ecclesiastical officer, but the scope and context determine all these judgments to the enemies of the church, and those of her illustrious Head. It is the "Vengeance of his temple." We have already found a star the emblem of a gospel minister, and we shall hereafter find it employed in that sense; but it does not seem to refer in the present connexion to any apostate. The name of this star, "Wormwood," embittering the waters, is a lively emblem of the miseries experienced by the people, in the use of the remaining temporal comforts which the preceding calamities had left.
12. And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise.
V. 12. The design of all the trumpets is to point out the utter destruction of the Roman empire, Daniel's "kingdom of iron." (Dan. ii. 40.) For although from the time of Constantine it assumed the Christian name, it nevertheless continued to be a beast. Of this we shall have cumulative evidence as we progress. The first trumpet began to demolish the fabric of antichristian power; and by the fourth the western division was overthrown. For although the northern barbarians under the first, the southern Vandals under the second, and the successors of both, prevailed to bring down the last of the Caesars, yet the ancient frame of government still subsisted, The political heaven, though shaken, was not yet wholly removed, while the Senate, Consuls and other official dignitaries continued to shine as political luminaries in the firmament of power. But as the last of the Caesars fell from power in the year 476, so the last vestige of imperial dominion in the west was removed in 566, when Rome, the queen of the nations, was by the emperor of the east reduced to the humble condition of a tributary dukedom. Most of the saints had their residence at this time in the nations of western Europe and northern Africa, where they were grievously afflicted by the Arian, Pelagian and other heresies; as also exposed to persecution by the civil powers, whom those heresiarchs moved to oppress the orthodox: consequently, the righteous judgments of God fall first upon that member of the empire. The eastern section, however, is destined to become the special object of the judgments indicated by the succeeding trumpets. However interpreters differ in details when explaining the effects produced by the sounding of the first four trumpets, they very generally harmonize in the application of them to the western section of the Roman empire. The luminaries of heaven are darkened, or fall, or are extinguished, while the earth, the sea and the rivers are correspondently affected. Now, these are the well known allegorical representations of divine judicial visitations of guilty communities, as we find in the prophetic writings. See, for example, the case of Babylon, "the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency," (Isa. xiii. 1, 10;) also Egypt,—(Ezek. xxxii. 7, 8.)
13 And I beheld; an(it heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabitants of the earth, by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!
V. 13. Before the fifth angel sounds, a note of warning is given by the ministry, of another angel distinct from the seven with the trumpets. He pronounces a "woe" thrice repeated, upon the inhabitants of the earth, indicating that heavier judgments and of longer duration are about to be inflicted. This announcement was intended to excite attention and awful expectation. This angel's message of "heavy tidings" may be viewed in quite interesting contrast with that of a subsequent angel,—"flying through the midst of heaven," (ch. xlv. 6.) How different, yet harmonious, is the ministry of those heavenly messengers!
The first four trumpets, as we have seen, demolished the western division of the Roman empire. About the middle of the sixth century this work was brought to completion. Here, for greater clearness, We may be allowed to anticipate by digressing a little. Assuming now, what shall afterwards appear to be correct, that the Roman empire is Daniel's fourth universal monarchy, and Paul's "let," or hinderance, to the revealing of the "Man of Sin;" since the first four trumpets have dismembered that great power, revealing the "ten toes,—ten horns," or kingdoms; we Would expect now to hear of the destruction of that "Son of perdition." But it is not so. That is to be effected by the vials, (ch. xvi.) As the general and grand design of the Apocalypse is to illustrate the divine government, exhibiting the moral world as affecting, or affected by the Christian religion, it seemed good to the Divine Author that the destinies of the eastern section of the Roman empire yet standing, where many of his saints reside, shall come under review. Ecclesiastical history treats familiarly of a Greek, as well as a Latin church and empire. As the trumpets cover the whole time from the opening of the sixth seal till the final overthrow of the whole fourth monarchy; (Dan. vii. 26; Rev. xi. 15,) it follows that the eastern section must be the object of a part of them. Accordingly, the remaining part of the second period, the Period of the Trumpets, includes the first two of the three, emphatically and significantly styled "woe—trumpets."