I PROPOSE, in the following pages, to give a brief outline of the prophecies of John, as set forth in the book of Revelation, and as usually held by leading interpreters. And I am led to do this for the reason that there is a great and felt need for just such a work. To the masses the Apocalypse is simply a sealed book. They read it, if at all, without getting an idea, either as to its intention or scope of its teachings. Indeed, many seem to think that it is neither possible, nor yet intended, to be understood. But if so, why is it termed a “revelation”? How a revelation with nothing revealed? If not to be read and studied, why the benediction pronounced, “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy”? If “All scripture is given by inspiration, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness,” can there be any reason why the prophetical portions should be made the exception? As the object of prophecy is twofold, being alike the attestation of revelation and the encouragement of God’s people, we can neither see wherein comes the encouragement, nor yet how they can be competent witnesses to sit in judgment upon this part of the evidence, if they are to know nothing about the things predicted, either as to their meaning, or the times and terms of their fulfillment?
The duty of investigation is clearly set forth in the double challenge: First, in the declaration that these things are “shortly to come to pass,” and secondly, in the command “to search the scriptures,” which command, if it means anything, must mean that we are to search every part alike, the prophetical portions as well as the epistles or gospels; and to seek to find out, as far as possible, their meaning, how much and wherein fulfilled; and especially is this duty incumbent on us who live in these latter days, when we hear so much about the “Millennial Dawn,” and the second coming of Christ.
I am fully aware that many wild and extravagant notions have been entertained, and fanciful interpretations given portions of this book, insomuch as to bring discredit upon the whole, and even to reflect upon the good sense of any who undertake to unravel its meaning. As Dr. South has quaintly said, “The book either finds one mad, or else makes him so.” But we see no reason why we may not apply the same good common sense here as elsewhere, accepting what we can understand, and leaving undisturbed what is clearly beyond our depth. As in the entire realm of nature, there is a part we can understand, where nature reveals herself, and a part wholly incomprehensible, where she refuses thus to interpret; so in the domain of prophecy there is a part entirely comprehensible because self-interpreted by its own fulfillment, and a part still wrapped in profound mystery for lack of such interpretation. We rejoice in the light of the one; before the darkness and obscurity of the other we can only bow in humble silence and await further light and development.
PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION.
To form any true conception of the book of Revelation, or to get anything like a satisfactory view of its teachings, it is necessary ever to bear in mind the following things:
1. That prophecy is intended only as a general outline or rough picture of coming events. The prophetic periods are seldom if ever clearly defined, but, like the rainbow hues, are so gradually blended into each other that it becomes oft times impossible to tell where the one period ends and the other begins. Besides, there is purposely cast over the whole more or less obscurity, and for the reason that if the thing were made unmistakably plain beforehand, man might be tempted to thwart the purpose.
2. The book is highly symbolic in its character, its nomenclature being made up of the boldest figures and emblems. Thus, under the guise of an earthquake, it speaks of a revolution or moral upheaval. It makes a battle, stand for a conflict of principle, the chaining of an evil spirit for the restraining of its influence and power. So the darkening of the sun and moon, and blotting out of the stars, is but the symbolic overthrow of human governments and kingly authority.
3. It is equally well to remember that a great deal of the imagery employed is intended simply as drapery to fill out the picture. Just as in the case of the parables, we are only to look for the general teaching or leading truth. To force every part to mean something will only be to “darken counsel with words,” and obscure the truth, as the sun, with multitudinous coverings of clouds.
4. Then we must not forget that the book of Revelation is not intended as an indiscriminate foretelling of future events, but only as a prophecy of the future of the church. If any allusion is made at all to any outside nation or people, it is simply because their history is incidentally connected with the history of the church. Hence the prominence given Chaldea and Egypt in the Old Testament, and the Roman Empire in the New. The scriptures are profoundly silent about all outside matters, however great and important they may seem. The final establishment of the church, and the universal enthronement of her Lord and King, are the great themes, and only burden of their teachings.
Asking the reader to bear these things in mind, and especially seeking the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and the blessing of God upon the effort, I proceed to the task before me.