With this chapter the prophetical part of the Apocalypse begins. This is the place where the third division of the book commences, of which intimation had been given to John—“Write the things which shall be hereafter.” (Ch i. 19.) The third is therefore much the largest part of the whole book, comprising all from the 4th to the 22d Ch. It is also to be noticed that the fourth and fifth chapters are properly of the nature of an introduction to what follows, presenting to view, as it were, a grand theatre on which are to be exhibited the dramatic characters and events which constitute the outline of history in the church and the world from the apostle s time till the consummation of all things.
Expositors commonly frame and lay down some rules by which they suppose symbolic language in general, and the symbols of this book in particular, may be interpreted. On examination, however, it will be discovered that the learned are not agreed either in the nature or number of such rules, and sometimes an expositor who has exerted his ingenuity most in devising canons of interpretation, forgets to apply them.
All languages, whether spoken or written, are more or less metaphorical, interspersed with what are called figures of speech. It is customary to represent nations and tribes, whose language abounds in symbols, as but little advanced in civilization, and to view oriental nations as more disposed to indulge in tropes and figures than those of the west, but perhaps this relative estimate of the modes of speech in the eastern and western hemispheres will admit of some modification, when we consider the gesticulations and similes by which the aborigines of America attempt to give expression to their ideas. The word hieroglyphics, signifying sacred sculpture, derived from the ancient mode of writing by the priests of Egypt, has received conventional currency among the learned, as descriptive of any writing which is obscure, “hard to be understood.” And all who read this book will find some of it “dark” indeed. The divine Author intended that it should be so, (Ch. xiii. 18,) yet he calls it emphatically, a “Revelation.”
We have already noticed, that the symbols in this book are taken from the ceremonial law in part, and part are taken from the works of creation. The heavens and the earth present to our senses a variety of material objects, some more, some less calculated to arrest our attention. Among these, the sun, moon and stars,—earth and sea, mountains and rivers, occupy prominent places. To facilitate our knowledge of these, and prompt reference to any part of them, we generalize or throw them into groups. Thus we speak familiarly of the “solar system,” the “animal, vegetable or mineral kingdom.” Now, just transfer these systematized objects from the material and physical, to the moral and spiritual world. Then consider what relation any one object bears to the system, and what influence it has upon the other objects of which it is a part, and its import may be generally, satisfactorily and certainly ascertained. Thus the same canons or rules which we apply in the interpretation of other writings, will be equally available in “searching the Scriptures,”—never, never forgetting that it is the Spirit of Christ that “guides into all truth,” or his own all—comprehensive rule of interpretation, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” (1 Cor. ii. 13.)
In order to the right observance of the divinely prescribed rule, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” we must often refer to the prophecies of the Old Testament,—to the second and seventh chapters of Daniel in particular, because that prophet, while the church was captive under the power of literal Babylon, was favoured with a discovery of the purpose of God, that a succession of imperial powers should afterwards arise to “try the patience and the faith of the saints.” As in the case of Pharaoh, so in the whole history of the rise, reign and overthrow of succeeding persecuting powers, Jehovah’s design was precisely the same,—“to make his power known, and that his name might be declared throughout all the earth.” (Ex. ix. 16, Rom. ix. 17.) In connexion with this, he would “glorify the riches of his grace on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory,” by sustaining them in the furnace of trial.
1. After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me, which said Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.
2. And immediately I was in the Spirit, and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.
3. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
Verses 1-3.—“After these things,” contained in the three preceding chapters, the glorious vision of the mediatorial person, and the writing and sending of the seven epistles, there seems to have intervened a pause. While John was in expectation of farther discoveries of “things which were to be thereafter,” “behold, a door was opened in heaven,” the place of Jehovah’s special residence. But as this “heaven” is sometimes the theatre of war, (Ch. xii. 7,) of course it is not to be taken literally. As a symbol it generally signifies organized society, over which the Most High presides. The “door opened” afforded the means to John of seeing the objects within. The “voice as of a trumpet,” which arrested his attention, was that of Christ,—the “voice of the Lord, full of majesty.” (Ps. xxix. 4, Ch. i. 10, 11) John was in his own apprehension, like Paul, “caught up into the third heaven,” that he might behold in glorious succession “things which must be hereafter.” Why must they be? Simply because such has the “purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will, who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working, whose counsel stands, and who doeth all his pleasure.” (Eph. i. 11.) Can a rational creature work without a plan? And shall mortal man be more rational than his Maker? The objects which were presented to John are not to be understood as material objects. It was requisite that he should be “in the Spirits” before he could see them.
The exercise of his bodily senses, the organs of sensation, must be suspended, that he might have a perception of the objects presented in vision. As the “spirits of just men made perfect” in glory, in a disembodied state, are still conscious and active, so are we warranted to conceive of souls yet in the body as being in a state analogous,—falling into a trance. (Acts x. 10.) The first object seen by John was a “throne set in heaven,” the emblem of sovereignty. “One sat on the throne,” who cannot be described, only in an obscure manner by comparison, being “the invisible God, whom no eye hath seen, nor can see.” Yet we know with certainty it is the person of the Father, because he is in the next chapter plainly distinguished from “the Lamb.” Seated on the throne,—and “in the throne he is greater than the Mediator.” A relation between these divine persons was shadowed forth in Egypt between Pharaoh and Joseph. (Gen. xii. 40.) Occupying the throne of the universe, the Father sustains the majesty of the Godhead, and represents the persons of the adorable Trinity, for the idea is equally unscriptural and absurd, that either person appeals or acts (ad extra) in absolute or essential character. (Is. xlii. 1, John x. 18, xiv. 31.) He that “sat, was like a jasper and a sardine stone,”—not like any human form, but in allusion, perhaps, to the Shekinah or visible glory above the mercy—seat in the most holy place, he appeared in the essential purity or holiness of his nature and awful justice,—one “who will by no means clear the guilty.” The rainbow is the familiar emblem or “token of the covenant.” Its being “round about the throne” teaches us, that God “in wrath remembers mercy.” As “green” is the color most pleasing to the natural eye, so is the rainbow of covenant mercy most grateful to the penitent sinner, contemplated by the eye of faith God is “ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps. cxi. 5.)
Ever since the revelation of mercy to fallen man, God deals with mankind, not in essential or absolute character, but by covenant in economical standing. All along since that epoch in the history of this world, “the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son.” As yet, however, the Son is not brought upon the stage in the apostle’s present view the Son has his appropriate place in the vision, where he will appear as Mediator. In the conflict to be carried on for twelve hundred and sixty years by the combined powers of earth and hell “against the Lord and his Anointed,” we have the agencies exhibited in these two chapters only on heaven’s side. The opposing hosts will afterwards appear.
4. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats, and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment, and they had on their heads crowns of gold.
5. And out of the throne proceeded lightnings, and thunderings, and voices and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God.
Verses 4, 5.—To John’s view, the “throne” seen from one side would appear to be surrounded by a segment of a circle, within which were “four and twenty seats,” (thrones,) occupied by an equal number of “elders.” In society divinely organized “elders” have always been the legal representatives of God’s covenant society in civil and ecclesiastical relations. (Exod. iii. 16, Acts xx. 17.) These “four and twenty elders” represent the collective body of God’s people under the Old and New Testaments,—the “twelve tribes of Israel” and the “twelve apostles.” (Ch. vii. 4, xxi. 12-14.) Their “white raiment and “crowns of gold” indicate their legal state and moral purity,—their justification and sanctification, as also their promotion to honour, to “reign as kings.” (Ch i. 6, v. 10.) [“reign on the earth” Ch. xx. 4.] Allusion is had to the terrific scene at Sinai by the “lightnings,” etc., when “Moses did exceedingly fear and quake,” importing that God, “our God, is a consuming fire” to all his impenitent, especially antichristian, enemies, even under the milder economy of the New Testament. (Heb. x. 28-31, Ch. xx. 10.) The “seven lamps of fire” are explained to mean “the seven spirits of God,” in allusion to the golden candlestick in the temple, (Exod. xxxvii. 23, Zech. iv. 2,) and signifying the gifts and graces of those who are “baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”
6. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal, and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.
7. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.
8. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him, and they were full of eyes within and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
9. And when those beasts give glory, and honor, and thanks, to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever,
10. The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11. Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory, and honour, and power, for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.
Vs 6-11.—The “sea of glass before the throne” is a symbol taken from the “brazen sea” in the temple, in which priests and victims were to be washed. (Exod. xxx. 18, 1 Kings vii. 23.) This sea represents the same thing as the “fountain opened,” (Zech. xiii. l,) which denotes the atoning and cleansing blood of Christ. (Ch. vii. 14.) All who offer “spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God,” must first be washed, for the “Lord had respect to Abel” first, and then to his “offering,” (Gen. iv. 4.)—Next, John saw “four beasts.” The translation here is faulty, as noticed by many expositors. Different words in the original Greek,—not only different, but in some respects opposite in signification, ought not to be rendered by the same English word, for this tends to mislead the unlearned leader. He is thus bewildered instead of being enlightened. There are several beasts besides these, introduced as instructive symbols in this book. Two are mentioned in Ch. xiii. 1, 11, altogether different from these,—so different as to be antagonistic. Instead of “beasts,” they should have been called “animals” or “living beings,” for even the phrase “living creatures” hardly covers or conveys the whole import of the Greek word. The position of these “four animals” is worthy of special notice—“in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne.” How can this be? Well, if the “seats” and the “elders” occupying them are “round about the throne,” in a segment of a circle, as viewed by John, then it, will be readily perceived that the “animals” seen from the same quarter would appear to him as occupying a space forming a smaller segment of a circle between the elders and the throne. Thus we have the relative positions, (a) the throne, (b) the “four animals” next to the throne, and lastly, (c) the “four and twenty elders.” The places occupied by these several parties are pregnant with scriptural instruction, as may appear when we come to the latter part of Ch. 6.
In the mean time, what do these “four animals” represent? Not the adorable Trinity, as some learned men have imagined, nor holy angels, as more learned men have supposed and laboured to prove. These “animals” are worshippers, (v. 8,) therefore they are not the Object of worship. They are culpably blind who mistake the creature for the Creator. (Rom. i. 25.) Other expositors have attempted, with greater plausibility but no better success, to prove these animals to be symbolical of angels. For this purpose, reference has been made to Isaiah’s vision of the seraphims, (Ch. vi. 2,) and also to the “four living creatures” which appeared in vision to Ezekiel, (i. 5-10.) The identity of John’s “animals” and Ezekiel’s “living creatures” is argued especially from their number, “four,” and their “faces” being the same. To the thoughtful and unbiased reader it is sufficient to reply,—that John’s “animals” acknowledge themselves to have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, (Ch. v. 8, 9,) an expression which is inapplicable to angels. As the “four and twenty elders” and the “four animals” comprise the whole company of the redeemed, as distinguished from the higher and lower orders of God’s worshippers, (Ch. v. 8-14,)and as the “elders” represent the whole church, it would seem to be reasonable to suppose, that these “animals” are the symbols of the gospel ministry. And to this agree their functions as exercised in the farther developments of this book, as we shall see.
One plausible objection to this interpretation is grounded on the fact that their “faces” are the same as those of Ezekiel’s angels,—“of an ox, or young calf, of a lion, of a man, and of an eagle.” But each of the “cherubims” had “four faces” whereas these “animals” have but one face each. Nor ought it to be thought incongruous that faithful ministers are represented as possessing some of the properties of holy angels, when we find them called by the same name (Ch. i. 20,) and also, when we find the Master directing them to imitate and emulate holy angels in their services (Matt. vi. 10, Ps. ciii. 20,2l.) These “animals,” emblematical of the gospel ministry, are in number “four,” answerable to the universality of their mission into the four quarters of the earth,—“all the world.” (Matt. xxviii. 19, Mark, xvi. 15.) So the “four winds,” (Ch. vii. 1,) mean all winds. As the “lion, which is the strongest among beasts, and turneth not away for any,” is distinguished for courage and magnanimity, so, as a symbol, it represents a ministry of courageous and heroic spirit. Luther in continental, and Knox in insular Europe, may be named as displaying this prominent feature of ministerial character the “calf” or young ox, symbolizes “patient continuance in well—doing” amidst trials, such as “cruel mockings,” etc. The “face as a man” indicates sagacity, “Christian prudence,” together with active sympathy. The “flying eagle” is emblematical of penetration and discrimination,—“ability to teach others,” from a spiritual insight into the divine character and purposes,—an experimental acquaintance with “the God of glory.” All these properties are not to be supposed ordinarily in any one minister, but as distributed among the ministry at large,—“according to the measure of the gift of Christ,”—the Holy Spirit “dividing to every man severally as he will.” (Eph. iv. 7, 1 Cor. xii. 11.) It may be remarked, that in some cases all these properties may be discerned in great measure in the same individual. In the gifts and grace of the apostle Paul, may be discovered the boldness of the lion, the patience of the ox, the compassion of the man, and the soaring flight of the eagle. Our covenant God endows his servants for the service to which he calls them, always making good the promise,—“As thy days, so shall thy strength be.”
The “six wings,” of course, are expressive of the activity of the ministry,—“In season, out of season,” emulating the heavenly seraphims in serving the same Lord. They were “full of eyes before, behind, within.” They are to “take heed to themselves, and to the ministry which they have received in the Lord, that they fulfil it.” (Col. iv. 17, I Tim. iv. 16.) They are to regard the operation of God’s hand in providence, so as to “have understanding of the times, and know what Israel ought to do.” (1 Chron. xii. 32.) They are to “try the spirits whether they are of God,” and “after the first and second admonition, to reject heretics.” (Tit. iii. 10.) They are to “oversee the flock,” (Acts xx. 28,) and to “watch for souls, as they that must give account” to the Master. (Heb. xiii. 17.) And we may say with Paul,—“Who is sufficient for these things? Modern prelates, who arrogate to themselves the exclusive use of the Scriptural official name “BISHOP,” generally manifest that they are only bishops, (two-eyed) and not the many—eyed servants of Christ, symbolized by the “four animals” of our text, or the “overseeing elders” charged at Miletus by the apostle Paul. (Acts xx. 17.) “While these men slept, the enemy sowed tares”—In direct acts of worship, these “animals,”—the ministers, take the lead, answerable to another official name,—“guides,” in things pertaining to God. (Heb. xiii. 7, [Greek] v. 1.) They are, as well expressed by another phrase, the “sworn expounders of God’s word,” and authoritative rulers in in his house. Destitute of legislative power, which in ecclesiastical affairs pertains to Christ alone, they are the authorized administrators of all the laws by which his household is to be governed. (Heb. xiii. 7, 17.)—The language of adoration here is the same uttered by the seraphim (Isa. vi. 3) The “holiness” of God is that aspect of his adorable character which is most attractive to holy angels and redeemed sinners, being the principal feature of the divine image reflected by themselves. (Matt. xxv. 31, Jude 14, 1 John iii. 2.) The glorious Being seen by John, as sitting on a throne, is the same who was seen by Isaiah, (vi. 1,) and precisely in the same attitude, but called by different names. By Isaiah he is denominated “the Lord of Hosts,”—by John, “the Lord God Almighty” The context proves,—especially Ch. v. 1, that John in vision contemplated God in the person of the Father, whereas we are assured, in John xii. 41, that Isaiah saw him in the person of the Son. Thus we may understand our Lord’s words addressed to Philip, (John xiv. 9,) “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” (See Heb. i. 3, Col. i. 15.)
Led by the “four animals,”—the ministry of reconciliation, the “four and twenty elders,” representing all the redeemed of mankind, “fall down before him that sat on the throne” in prostrate adoration of that glorious Being whose “eternal power and Godhead” are demonstrated in the volume of creation. We are thus taught that motives to acceptable worship of God are primarily to be found in the perfections of his nature as our beneficent Creator,—perfections possessed by him in essential character, independently of all his works of creation and redemption. His “worthiness” of worship is inherent in himself, but outwardly manifested to intelligent creatures by the work of creation, of which he is the first Cause and the last End,—the efficient and final Cause. This doctrine, understood by the intellect and unbraced in the heart, would greatly tend to “hide pride from man.” (Job xxxiii. 17.) Aside from the doctrine of the “cross,” which is still counted “foolishness” by our modern self styled “philosophers, psychologists and freethinkers,” there is enough here revealed of this eternal One to humble the “proud looks and haughty hearts” of these “enemies of the King.” Without repentance, “he that made them will not have mercy on them, and he that formed them will show them no favour,” for notwithstanding their pride of superior intellect, he whose judgment is according to truth, has pronounced them a “people of no understanding.” (Isa. xxvii. 11.) It is no disparagement to those in places of highest earthly dignity, as David, nor to the wisest of all men, as Solomon to “cast their crowns before the throne” of this only universal Monarch, saying, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created,” “and let the whole earth be filled with his glory.” (Ps. lxxii. 19.)