Eph 3 :21 Unto him be glory in the
The Sixth Vision
THE HARLOT CITY, Chaps. xvii. xviii. xix xx.
We now approach a part of our investigation in which we are about to make great demands upon the candour and impartiality of the reader, and must ask for a patient and unbiased weighing of the evidence that shall be brought before him. Possibly we may run counter to many prepossessions, but if the seat of judgment be occupied by an impartial love of truth, we do not fear an adverse decision.
It may be convenient at the outset to take a general view of this vision as a whole, occupying as it does a larger space than any in the book, and thus indicating the pre-eminent importance of its contents.
It is introduced by a short preface or prologue (chap. xvii. 1, 2). One of the vial-angels invites the Seer to come and behold the judgment of ‘the great harlot that sitteth on many waters.’ The vision is seen in ‘the wilderness.’ The prophet sees a woman sitting upon a scarlet-coloured wild beast, full of names of blasphemy, and having seven heads and ten horns. The woman is gorgeously arrayed in a robe of purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stones, and holds in her hand a golden cup ‘full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.’ On the forehead of this visionary figure is an inscription, ‘Mystery, Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.’ She is, moreover, said to be ‘drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.’ The angel-interpreter then proceeds to disclose to the wondering prophet the meaning of the apparition. He identifies the wild beast in this vision with the first beast described in chap. xiii., whose number is six hundred and sixty-six, adding additional particulars to the description, some of them of a very obscure character. The woman, or harlot, he declares to be ‘that great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth.’ In the next chapter (xviii.) the fall of Babylon the great, or the harlot city, is described in language of great power and beauty. This is followed in chap. xix. by the celebration in heaven of the triumph over Babylon, which gives occasion to introduce by anticipation the approaching nuptials of the Lamb; after which there is a description of the victory of the divine Champion, whose name is the Word of God, over ‘the beast, the false prophet, and the kings of the earth.’ In chap. xx. the dragon, the head of the great confederacy against the cause of truth and of God, is bound and shut up in the abyss for a period of a thousand years. The vision then closes in a grand catastrophe, a solemn act of judgment, in which the dead, small and great, stand before God, and are judged according to their works. Such is a rapid sketch of the outlines of this magnificent vision.
The question of greatest importance and difficulty which we have here to deal with is, What city is signified by the woman sitting on the scarlet beast, and designated ‘Babylon the great’?
By the great majority of interpreters it has been, and is, received as an undoubted and almost self-evident proposition that the Babylon of the Apocalypse is, and can be, no other than Rome, the empress of the world in the days of St. John, and since his time the seat and centre of the most corrupt form of Christianity and the most overshadowing spiritual despotism that the world has ever seen. That there is much to favour this opinion may be inferred from the fact of its general acceptance. It may even be thought to be placed beyond question by the apparent identification of the harlot in the vision, as the ‘city of the seven hills,’ and ‘the great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth.’
It will seem presumptuous as well as hazardous to challenge a decision which has been pronounced by such high authority, and which has ruled so long among Protestant theologians and commentators, and he who ventures to do so enters the lists at a great disadvantage. Nevertheless, in the interests of truth, and with all reverence and loyalty to the teaching of the divine Word, it may not only be permitted, but may even be imperative, to show cause why the popular interpretation of this symbol should be rejected as untenable and untrue.
1. There is an a priori presumption of the strongest kind against Rome being the Babylon of the Apocalypse. The improbability is great with regard even to Rome pagan, but far greater with regard to Rome papal. The very design of the book excludes the possibility of Rome being represented as one of its dramatis personae. The fundamental idea of the Apocalypse, as we have endeavoured to prove, is the approaching Parousia and the accompanying judgment of the guilty nation. Rome, Heathen or Christian, lies altogether outside the apocalyptic field of view, which is restricted to ‘things which must shortly come to pass.’ To wander into all ages and countries in the interpretation of these visions is absolutely forbidden by the express and fundamental limitations laid down in the book itself.
2. On the other hand, it is to be expected a priori that great prominence should be given in the Apocalypse to Jerusalem. This is fact, if our view of the design and subject of the book be correct, ought to be the central figure in the picture. If the Apocalypse is only the reproduction and expansion of our Lord’s prophecy on the Mount of Olives, which is mainly occupied with the approaching judgment of Israel and of Jerusalem, we may expect to find the same thing in the Apocalypse; and it is as unreasonable to look for Rome in the Apocalypse as it would be to look for it in our Lord’s prophecy on the Mount.
3. It deserves particular attention that in the Apocalypse there are two cities, and only two, that are brought prominently and by name into view by symbolic representation. Each is the antithesis of the other. The one is the embodiment of all that is good and holy, the other the embodiment of all that is evil and accursed. To know either, is to know the other. These two contrasted cities are the new Jerusalem and Babylon the great.
There can be no room for doubt as to what is signified by the new Jerusalem: it is the city of God, the heavenly habitation, the inheritance of the saints of light. But what, then, is the proper antithesis to the new Jerusalem? Surely, it can be no other than the old Jerusalem. In fact, this antithesis between the old Jerusalem and the new is drawn out for us so distinctly by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians, that he puts into our hand a key to the interpretation of this symbol in the Apocalypse. The apostle contrasts the Jerusalem ‘which now is’ with the Jerusalem which was to be: the Jerusalem which is in bondage with the Jerusalem which is free: the Jerusalem which is beneath with the Jerusalem which is above (Gal. iv. 25, 26). We have a similar antithesis in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where ‘the city which hath foundations’ is contrasted with the ‘not-continuing city; the city ‘whose builder is God’ with the city of human creation; ‘the city of the living God,’ or the ‘heavenly Jerusalem,’ with the earthly Jerusalem (Heb. xi. 10, 16; xii. 22). In like manner we have the antithesis between these two cities distinctly and broadly presented to us in the Apocalypse the one being the harlot, the other the bride, the Lamb’s wife.
These parallels or contrasts have only to be presented to the eye to speak for themselves:---
The real and proper antithesis, therefore, to the new Jerusalem is the old Jerusalem: and since the city contrasted with the new Jerusalem is also designated Babylon, we conclude that Babylon is the symbolic name of the wicked and doomed city, the old Jerusalem, whose judgment is here predicted.
4. If it be objected that other symbolic names have already been appropriated by the old Jerusalem,---that she is designated ‘Sodom and Egypt,’---that is no reason why she may not be also styled Babylon. If she passes under one pseudonym, why not under another, provided it be descriptive of her character? All these names, Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, are alike suggestive of evil and of ungodliness, and proper designations of the wicked city whose doom was to be like theirs.
5. It deserves notice that there is a title which, in the Apocalypse, is applied to one particular city par excellence. It is the title ‘the great city’ [h poliz h megalh]. It is clear that it is always the same city which is so designated, unless another be expressly specified. Now, the city in which the witnesses are slain is expressly called by this title, ‘that great city;’ and the names Sodom and Egypt are applied to it; and it is furthermore particularly identified as the city ‘where also our Lord was crucified’ (chap. xi. 8). There can be no reasonable doubt that this refers to ancient Jerusalem. If, then, ‘the great city’ of chap. xi. 8 means ancient Jerusalem, it follows that ‘the great city’ of chap. xvi. 8, styled also Babylon, and ‘the great city’ of chap. xvi. 19, must equally signify Jerusalem. By parity of reasoning, ‘that great city’ in chap. xvii. 18, and elsewhere, must refer also to Jerusalem. It is a mere assumption to say, as Dean Alford does, that Jerusalem is never called by this name. There is no unfitness, but the contrary, in such a distinctive title being applied to Jerusalem, It was to an Israelite the royal city, by far the greatest in the land, the only city which could properly be so designated; and it ought never to be forgotten that the visions of the Apocalypse are to be regarded from a Jewish point of view.
6. In the catastrophe of the fourth vision (that of the seven mystic figures) the judgment of Israel is symbolised by the treading of the wine-press. We are told also that ‘the wine-press was trodden without the city’ (chap. xiv. 20). Since the vine of the land represents Israel, as it undoubtedly does, it follows that ‘the city’ outside which the grapes are trodden must be Jerusalem. The only city mentioned in the same chapter is Babylon the great (ver. 8), which must therefore represent Jerusalem. It is inconceivable that the vine of Judea should be trodden outside the city of Rome.
7. In chap. xvi. 19 it is stated that ‘the great city’ was divided into three parts by the unprecedented earthquake mentioned in ver. 18. What great city? Evidently great Babylon, which is said to come in remembrance before God. Possibly the division of the city may have no special significance beyond the illustration of the disastrous effect of the earthquake; but more probably it is an allusion to the figure employed by the prophet Ezekiel in describing the siege of Jerusalem. (Ezek. v. 1-5). The prophet is commanded to take the hairs of his head and beard, and, dividing them into three parts, to burn one part with fire, to cut another with a knife, and to scatter the third to the four winds, drawing out a sword after them; while only a few hairs were to be preserved, and bound in the skirt of his garment. Then follows the emphatic declaration,---‘Thus saith the Lord God, This is Jerusalem.’ It is fitting that in a prophecy so full of symbols as that of Ezekiel we should look for light on the symbols of the Apocalypse. How vividly this tripartite division of the city represents the fate of Jerusalem in the siege of Titus it is needless to say. It is scarcely possible to imagine a more truthful description of the actual historical fact than that which is summed up in the twelfth verse of the same chapter:---‘A third part of thee shall die by the pestilence, and with famine shall they be consumed in the midst of thee; and a third part shall fall by the sword round about thee; and I will scatter a third part into all the winds, and I will draw out a sword after them.’
But whether this be the allusion in the vision or not, the language is wholly unintelligible if applied to any other city than Jerusalem. In what reasonable sense could Rome be said to be divided into three parts? Is it Rome that comes into remembrance before God? Is it to Rome that the cup of the wine of the fierceness of the wrath of God is given? This last figure ought to have suggested to commentators the true interpretation. It is a symbol appropriated to Jerusalem. ‘Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling, and wrung them out’ (Isa. li. 17).
8. But a weightier argument, and one that may be considered decisive against Rome being the Babylon of the Apocalypse, and at the time proving the identity between Jerusalem and Babylon, is that which is derived from the name and character of the woman in the vision. We have seen that the woman represents a city; a city styled ‘the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified’ (chap. xi. 8). This woman or city is also styled a harlot, ‘that great harlot,’ ‘the mother of harlots and abominations of the land.’ Now, this is an appellation familiar and well known in the Old Testament, and one that is utterly inappropriate and inapplicable to Rome. Rome was a heathen city, and consequently incapable of that great and damning sin which was possible, and, alas, actual, for Jerusalem. Rome was not capable of violating the covenant of her God, of being false to her divine Husband, for she never was the married wife of Jehovah. This was the crowning guilt of Jerusalem alone among all the nations of the earth, and it is the sin for which all through her history she is arraigned and condemned. It is impossible to read the graphic description of the great harlot in the Apocalypse without instantly being reminded of the original in the Old Testament prophets. All through their testimony this is the sin, and this is the name, which they hurl against Jerusalem. We hear Isaiah exclaiming, ‘How is the faithful city become an harlot!’ (Isa. i. 21.) ‘Thou hast discovered thyself to another than me, and art gone up; thou hast enlarged thy bed, and made thee a covenant with them’ (Isa. lvii. 8). Still more emphatically does the prophet Jeremiah stigmatise Jerusalem with this reproachful epithet, ‘Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the Lord: I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals; ‘---but, ‘upon every high hill and under every green tree thou wanderest, playing the harlot’ (Jer. ii. 2, 20). ‘Thou hast played the harlot with many lovers;’ ‘thou hast polluted the land with thy whoredoms and with thy wickedness;’ ‘thou hadst a whore’s forehead, thou refusedst to be ashamed.’ ‘She is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot.’ ‘Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you.’ ‘Surely as a wife treacherously departeth from her husband, so have ye dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, saith the Lord’ (Jer. iii. 1, 2, 3, 6, 14, 20). ‘Though thou clothest thyself with crimson, though thou deckest thee with ornaments of gold, though thou rentest thyself with painting, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair; thy lovers will despise thee, they will seek thy life’ (Jer. iv. 30). ‘What hath my beloved to do in mine house, seeing she hath wrought lewdness with many?’ (Jer. xi. 15.) ‘I have seen thy adulteries, and thy neighings, the lewdness of thy whoredom, and thine abominations on the hills in the fields. Woe unto thee, O Jerusalem, wilt thou not be made clean? When shall it once be?’ (Jer. xiii. 27.)
Passing by the other prophets, it is in Ezekiel that we find the figure elaborated to the fullest extent. In the sixteenth chapter the whole history of Israel, personified by Jerusalem, is related in an allegorical and poetical style, and it will be sufficient here to quote the table of contents of that chapter in the words prefixed by our translators.
1. Under the similitude of a wretched infant is shewed the natural state of Jerusalem. 6. God’s extraordinary love towards her. 15. Her monstrous whoredom. 35. Her grievous judgment. 44. Her sin, matching her mother, and exceeding her sisters, Sodom and Samaria, calleth for judgments. 60. Mercy is promised her in the end.
We think it is scarcely possible for any candid and intelligent mind to compare the allegories of Ezekiel in the sixteenth, twenty-second, and twenty-third chapters, with the description of the harlot in the Apocalypse, without being convinced that we find in the prophecy the original and prototype of the vision, and that both portray the same individual, viz. Jerusalem.
We have thus decisive evidence that the characteristic guilt of Jerusalem was that sin which is known in Scripture as spiritual adultery; an offence which could not be imputed to Rome, because it did not hold the same relation to God as Jerusalem did. It is to Jerusalem, and Jerusalem alone, that the disgraceful epithet is, with melancholy uniformity, applied, as peculiarly and pre-eminently ‘the harlot city’.
It will of course be urged as an objection to this identification of Jerusalem as the apocalyptic Babylon, that the topographical description of ‘the great city’ is so exactly applicable to Rome that it is impossible that any other city should be meant. For example, the ninth verse states, ‘Here is the mind that hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.’ This must be Rome, and can be no other; for she is notoriously the ‘urbs septicollis,’ the seven-hilled city.
Yet the objector might have surmised that if the identity of the city were so self-evident, it would scarcely have been proper to preface the explanation with the significant words, ‘Here is the mind that hath wisdom;’ that is to say, it requires wisdom to understand the interpretation of the vision. This explanation is too superficial to be correct.
In the interpretation of a symbolic book an excessive literality may be a source of error. Especially the symbolic number seven is least of all to be taken in a strictly arithmetical sense. There are many examples in the Apocalypse of the use of this symbolic number, in which no interpreter with common sense would dream of counting the units. We have seven heads, seven eyes, seven lamps, seven stars, seven thunders, seven spirits. It would be a manifest absurdity to insist upon the full numerical tale of such objects, why, then, should seven be understood arithmetically when predicated of mountains? Is it not much more congruous with the nature of such a symbol that it should have a moral, or political, rather than a topographical sense, indicating the pre-eminence of the city in power or in privilege? Like Capernaum, Jerusalem was ‘exalted to heaven,’ and like her was to be ‘brought down to hell.’
But granting that the expression, ‘sitting on seven mountains,’ has a topographical significance, this feature is adequately represented in the situation of Jerusalem. It was really far more a mountain-city than Rome herself. ‘His foundation is in the holy mountains’ (Ps. lxxxvii. 1); ‘God is greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountains of his holiness’ (Ps. xlviii. 1, 2). Jerusalem was ‘a city set upon a hill.’ To this day the traveller is struck with this peculiarity of its site.
‘The city itself is superbly placed, like a queen upon the mountains, with the deep valleys and mountains around to guard her.’
Should, however, the literalist still require that the mystical Babylon shall have the full tale of hills, Jerusalem has as good a claim as Rome to sit upon seven mountains. In addition to the well-known hills Zion, Moriah, Acra, Bezetha, and Ophel, the castle of Antonia stood upon another height, and there was another rocky eminence or ridge on which the towers of Hippicus, Phasaelus, and Mariamne were built by Herod the Great. (See Zuellig on The Revelation, Stud. und Krit. for 1842.) It is possible, therefore, to find seven hills in Jerusalem; though it must be admitted that Josephus speaks only of four, or at most five. We consider, however, that the symbol refers to the elevated situation of the city, or to its political pre-eminence. Another objection, still more formidable, will be alleged in the declaration of ver. 18, ‘The woman which thou sawest is that great city which reigneth over the kings of the earth.’ This, it will be said, cannot apply to Jerusalem, and can apply only to Rome. Jerusalem never was an imperial city, with vassal nations and tributary kings subject to her authority; whereas Rome was the mistress and monarch of the world.
So far as the title ‘the great city’ is concerned we have shown that it is actually applied to Jerusalem in several passages in the Apocalypse (chap. xi. 8, 13; xiv. 8, 20; xvi. 19). To the Jew it was a great city, and with good reason. There is a remarkable passage in Josephus, where he gives a report of the speech of Eleazar, the brave defender of the fortress of Masada, inciting his men to destroy themselves with their wives and children rather than surrender to the Romans:---
‘Where now,’ said he, ‘is that great city, the metropolis of the whole nation of Jews, protected by so many encircling walls, secured by so many forts, and by the vastness of its towers, which could with difficulty contain its munitions of war, and which was garrisoned by so many myriads of defenders? What has become of that city of ours in which it was believed God Himself was a dweller? Uprooted from its foundation, it has been swept away, one memorial of it alone remaining,---the camp of its destroyers still planted upon its ruins.’
Such a passage disposes at once of the objection that the title of ‘that great city’ is not applicable to Jerusalem.
With regard to the phrase, ‘which reigneth over the kings of the earth,’---the fallacy which has misled many is the mistranslation ‘kings of the earth’. A very fruitful source of confusion and error in the interpretation of the New Testament is the capricious and uncertain way in which gh is rendered in our Authorised Version. Sometimes, though rarely, it has its proper meaning, the land; but more frequently it is translated the earth, and our translators never seem to have given themselves any trouble to inquire whether the word should be taken in its widest or in a more restricted sense. With incredible carelessness they render pasai ai fulai thz ghz, ’all the kindreds of the earth,’ instead of ‘all the tribes of the land;’ and h ampeloz thz ghz, ’the vine of the earth,’ instead of ‘the vine of the land.’ so in the passage before us (chap. xvii. 18), the ‘kings of the earth’ should be ‘kings of the land,’ i.e. Judea or Palestine. This very phrase is used in the New Testament in the restricted sense of ‘the rulers of the land,’ by St. Peter in Acts iv. 26, 27, ‘Of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were gathered together in this city,’ etc. and he recognises this fact as the fulfilment of the prediction in the second Psalm, ‘Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? The kings of the land stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his anointed.’ The ‘kings of the land,’ therefore, are identified by the apostle Peter as the confederate rulers who put the Son of God to death in the city of Jerusalem. So also in Rev. vi. 15, where ‘the kings of the land’ are represented as hiding themselves from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, in the great day of His wrath. The phrase, therefore, is equivalent to ‘the ruling authorities in the land of Judea,’ or of Palestine.
We have already pointed out the correspondence between the passage just referred to (Rev. vi. 15, 16) and the original draught of the scene as described in the prophecy of Isaiah (chap. ii. 10-22; iii. 1-3). It is, therefore, unnecessary here to do more than call attention to the obvious correspondence between ‘the kings of the land’ in the vision, and ‘the mighty men, and the men of war,’ etc., in the prophecy. We are, therefore, not merely warranted, but compelled to regard the phrase ‘kings of the earth’ as equivalent to ‘rulers of the land.’
Thus interpreted, the description of Babylon the great as ‘reigning over the rulers of the land’ becomes perfectly appropriate to Jerusalem. This appears from the language in which both the Scriptures and other Hebrew writings speak of the authority and pre-eminence enjoyed by that city. For example, the prophet Jeremiah describes Jerusalem as ‘she that was great among the nations, and princess of the provinces’ (Lam. i. 1), language fully equivalent to ‘that great city which beareth rule over the rulers of the land.’ Again, if so small a city as Bethlehem might be styled ‘not the least amount the princes of Judah’ (Matt. ii. 6), surely the metropolitan city might without impropriety be said to ‘reign over the princes, or rulers, of the land.’ But the language which Josephus employs on this subject is a full justification of the apocalyptic description of Jerusalem.
‘Judea,’ he tells us, ‘reaches in breadth from the river Jordan to Joppa. In its very centre lies the city of Jerusalem; for which reason some, not inaptly, have styled that city "the navel" of the country. It [Judea] is divided into eleven allotments (toparchies), whereof Jerusalem, as the seat of royalty, is supreme, exalted over all the adjacent region, as the head over the body.’
This is language which is tantamount to the expression, ‘that great city which reigneth over the kings, or rulers, of the land.’
It may possibly be felt to be a difficulty that the Jerusalem of the apostolic age could not with propriety be styled ‘the harlot city,’ since that name implies idolatry, i.e. spiritual adultery; whereas the Jews of that period were intensely monotheistic, and actually threatened to rise in rebellion rather than permit the temple to be desecrated by the introduction of the statue of the emperor. This is undoubtedly true in the letter; yet, as St. Paul intimates (Rom. ii. 22), the Jews of his time, while abhorring idols, were guilty of sacrilege. It has been well said by Dr. Hodge:---
‘The essence of idolatry was profanation of God: of this the Jews were in a high degree guilty. They had made His house a den of thieves.’
They had as truly apostatised from God as if they had set up the worship of Baal or of Jupiter. In rejecting the Messiah they had definitively broken the covenant of their God. Our Lord expressly declared that that generation summed up in itself the crimes and guilt of all its predecessors. It was the child and heir of all the evil generations that had gone before, and filled up the measure of its ancestors:---‘That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the land,’ etc. ‘Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation’ (Matt. xxiii. 35, 36).
One more argument for the identity of Jerusalem with the apocalyptic Babylon, and one which we consider conclusive, is to be found in the character ascribed to the city as the persecutor and murderer of the prophets and saints: ‘I beheld the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus’ (chap. xvii. 6); ‘And in her was found the blood of the prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain in the land’ (chap. xviii. 24); ‘Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets, for God hath avenged you on her’ (chap. xviii. 20). Who can fail to recognise in this description the distinctive characteristics of the Jerusalem of ‘that generation’? Who is it that kills the prophets and stones them that are sent unto her? Jerusalem. What is the city out of which it cannot be that a prophet should perish---that enjoys an infamous monopoly of murdering the messengers of God? Jerusalem. The blood of the saints and of prophets is the immemorial stain upon Jerusalem; the brand of the murderer stamped upon her brow; and the generation that crucified Christ is described by Him as ‘the children of them that killed the prophets,’ and so ‘filled up the measure of their fathers’ (Matt. xxiii. 30-32).
It is impossible to mistake the bearer of this conspicuous and distinctive indictment inscribed upon the front of Jerusalem, long before stigmatized by the prophet Ezekiel as ‘the bloody city’ (Ezek. xxii. 2; xxiv. 6-9).
It is not without cause, therefore, that the apostles and prophets are invited to rejoice over the fall of their relentless persecutor and murderer. The souls under the altar had long cried, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell in the land?’ They had been comforted with the message ‘that they should rest for a little season, until their fellow-servants and brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled,’ then ‘God would speedily avenge his own elect.’ And now the day of vengeance, the year of His redeemed, is come.
Can any proof be more conclusive that it is Jerusalem, the murderess of the prophets, which is here described---that Jerusalem is the Babylon of the Apocalypse? How exact is the correspondence between our Lord’s prediction in Luke xi. 49-51 and its fulfillment in Rev. xviii. 24:---
THE MYSTERY OF THE SCARLET BEAST.
Chap. xvii. 3, 7-11.---‘And I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns . . . I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and the ten horns. The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and is about to ascend out of the abyss, and goeth into perdition: and they that dwell upon the land shall wonder, whose name is not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and shall come. Here is the mind that hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there [they] are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come: and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. And the beast that was and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.’
There can be no reasonable doubt that the beast [qhrion] here described is identical with that in chap. xiii. The name, the description, and the attributes of the monster plainly point to the same individual. There are, however, additional particulars in this second description which at first seem rather to obscure than elucidate the meaning. The scarlet colour, indeed, may easily be recognised as the symbol of Imperial dignity; but what can be said of the apparent paradoxes, ‘he was, and is not, and shall come again’? and ‘he is the eighth [king], and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition’?
We have already been led to the conclusion that the wild beast (chap. xiii.) signifies Nero. The paradox or enigma which represents him as ‘the beast which was, and is not, and shall appear,’ is a puzzle which at first sight seems inexplicable. It is evidently a contradiction in terms, and can only be true in some peculiar sense. That it should actually be true, in any sense of Nero, is one of the most extraordinary facts in history, and brings home to him this symbolic description with all the force of demonstration. It seems established by the clearest evidence that at the death of Nero there was a popular and wide-spread belief that the tyrant was still alive, and would shortly reappear. We have the express testimony of Tacitus, Suetonius, and other historians to the existence of such a persuasion. It has been objected that this explanation of the paradox virtually imputes equivocation to the Scriptures. What can be more frivolous than such an argument? Any explanation of what is a contradiction in terms must be in some degree unnatural and equivocal; but it is absurd in dealing with a book of symbols to demand literal truth. Must it be shown that Nero had ten horns?
It was surely competent for the prophet-seer to indicate a person, whom he dared not name, by any symbolic representation which would lead to his recognition. What could be more distinctive of the particular person intended than this very fact of his expected reappearance after death? Of how few persons in the world could such an opinion be entertained? That it should be historically true that such a popular delusion prevailed respecting Nero we regard as a singular and conclusive proof that he is the individual denoted by the symbol.
THE SEVEN KINGS.
It is more difficult to unriddle the enigma of the seven kings, of whom the beast is one, and yet the eighth. The seven heads of the monster seem to be emblematic, not only of the seven hills upon which the woman sits, but also of seven kings who have a twofold relation, viz. to the woman and to the beast. The antitype of the symbol ought, therefore, to sustain this double relation, though one would expect, as being connatural with the monster, that their relation to him would be the most intimate. Of these seven kings, ‘five,’ it is stated, ‘are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space; and the beast that was, and is now, he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.’
We have already seen that in general, the number seven being a symbolic number, is not to be taken as standing for so many units, but as indicating perfectness or totality. There are occasions, however, when it seems necessary to take it in an arithmetical sense, as, for example, when it stands in close connection with other numbers. In the instance before us, where we read of seven kings, five of whom are fallen, and one is, and the seventh is not yet come, while a mysterious eighth is hinted at, it is difficult to understand the number seven in any other than the literal numerical sense.
Where, then, are we to look for these seven kings or heads? It is presumable that they also are where the mountains are, in the place where the scene is laid. If the harlot means Jerusalem we should expect to find the kings there also. Where, then, are seven kings, and a mysterious eighth, to be found in Jerusalem? The kings of the Herodian line have been suggested, viz. 1. Herod the Great; 2. Archelaus; 3. Philip; 4. Herod Antipas; 5. Agrippa I.; 6. Herod of Chalcis; 7. Agrippa II. This is the suggestion of Dr. Zuellig, and deserves the praise of ingenuity; but there are two fatal objections to it: first, they cannot all be said to have been kings or rulers in Jerusalem, or even in Judea; and, secondly, they do not all belong to the apocalyptic period, the close of the Jewish age, or the last days of Jerusalem, which is an indispensable condition.
We venture to propose another solution, which we think will be found to answer in every particular the requirements of the problem. Bearing in mind what has already been proved, that the title ‘kings’ is often used as synonymous with rulers or governors, we submit that the basileiz here alluded to are no other than the Roman procurators of Judea under Claudius and Nero. It was in the reign of Claudius that Judea became for the second time a Roman province. This fact is expressly stated by Josephus, and also the reason why the change was made. On the death of Herod Agrippa I., on whom Caligula had conferred the sovereignty of the entire kingdom, his son Agrippa II. was considered by Claudius too young to fill his father’s throne. Judea was therefore reduced to the form of a province. Cuspius Fadus was sent into Judea as the first of this second series of procurators.
These procurators were really viceroys, and answer well to the title basileiz in the vision. Their number also exactly tallies with that given in the Apocalypse. From the appointment of Cuspius Fadus to the outbreak of the Jewish war, there were seven governors who bore supreme rule in Jerusalem and Judea. These were: 1. Cuspius Fadus; 2. Tiberius Alexander; 3. Ventidius Cumanus; 4. Antonius Felix; 5. Portius Festus; 6. Albinus; 7. Gessius Florus.
Here, then, we have a well-defined period, falling within the apocalyptic limits as to time, occupying apocalyptic ground as to place, and corresponding with the apocalyptic symbol as to the number, character, and title. These viceroys sustain the double relation required by the symbol; they were related to the beast as Romans and as deputies; and they are related to the woman as governing powers.
It is now easy to see how Nero himself, the beast from the sea, or foreign tyrant, may be said to be the eighth, and yet of the seven. He was the supreme head, and these procurators were his deputies, the representatives of the emperor in Judea and Jerusalem. Thus he might be said to be of them, and yet distinct from them,---the eighth, and yet of the seven. This gives a natural and fitting propriety to the apparently enigmatical and paradoxical language of the symbolic representation, and solves the riddle without violent torture or dexterous manipulation.
THE TEN HORNS OF THE BEAST.
There is much obscurity also in the next symbol in chap. xvii. 12:---
‘And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but they receive authority as kings one hour [or at one hour,---contemporaneously] with the beast.’
It will be observed that these ‘ten kings’ have the following characteristics:---
1. They are satellites or tributaries of the beast, i.e. subject to Rome.
2. They are confederate with the beast against Jerusalem.
3. They are hostile to Christianity.
4. They are hostile to the harlot, and active agents in her destruction.
5. When the apostle wrote these kings were not yet invested with power.
6. Their power was to be contemporaneous with that of the beast.
On the whole, we conclude that this symbol signifies the auxiliary princes and chiefs who were allies of Rome and received commands in the Roman army during the Jewish war. We know from Tacitus and Josephus that several kings of neighbouring nations followed Vespasian and Titus to the war. Allusion has already been made to some of these auxiliaries: Antiochus, Sohemus, Agrippa, and Malchus. There were no doubt others, but it is not incumbent to produce the exact number of ten, which, like seven, appears to be a mystic or symbolic number. They are represented as animated by a bitter hostility to Jerusalem, the harlot city: ‘These shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire. For God hath put into their heart to fulfill his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled’ (Rev. xvii. 16, 17). Tacitus speaks of the bitter animosity with which the Arab auxiliaries of Titus were filled against the Jews, and we have a fearful proof of the intense hatred felt towards the Jews by the neighbouring nations in the wholesale massacres of that unhappy people perpetrated in may great cities just before the outbreak of the war. The whole Jewish population of Caesarea were massacred in one day. In Syria every city was divided into two camps, Jews and Syrians. In Scythopolis upwards of thirteen thousand Jews were butchered; in Ascalon, Ptolemais, and Tyre, similar atrocities took place. But in Alexandria the carnage of the Jewish inhabitants exceeded all the other massacres. The whole Jewish quarter was deluged with blood, and fifty thousand corpses lay in ghastly heaps in the streets. This is a terrible commentary on the words of the angel-interpreter: ‘The ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore,’ etc.
It only remains to notice one other feature in the vision. The woman is represented as ‘sitting upon many waters,’ and in the fifteenth verse these waters are said to signify ‘peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.’ The mystical Babylon, like her prototype the literal Babylon, is said to ‘sit upon many waters.’ The prophet Jeremiah thus addresses ancient Babylon: ‘O thou that dwellest upon many waters’ (Jer. li. 12), and this description appears to be equally appropriate to Jerusalem.
The influence exercised by the Jewish race in all parts of the Roman Empire previous to the destruction of Jerusalem was immense; their synagogues were to be found in every city, and their colonies took root in every land. We see in Acts ii. the marvellous ramifications of the Hebrew race in foreign countries, from the enumeration of the different nations which were represented in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost: ‘There were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven, . . . Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians.’ Jerusalem might truly be said to ‘sit upon many waters,’ that is, to exercise a mighty influence upon ‘peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.’
Such is the vision of ‘the harlot city,’ the fate of which is the great theme of our Lord’s prophecy on Olivet as well as of the Apocalypse. That it is Jerusalem, and Jerusalem alone, which is here portrayed must, we think be abundantly clear to every unbiased and candid mind; and any other subject would be utterly foreign to the whole purpose and end of the Apocalypse.
NOTE ON REVELATION XVII.
IDENTITY OF THE BEAST OF THE APOCALYPSE WITH THE MAN OF SIN IN 2 THESSALONIANS II.
Before quitting this chapter it will be proper to point out the remarkable correspondence between the ‘man of sin’ delineated by St. Paul in 2 Thess. ii. and the wild beast described by St. John in Rev. xiii. and xvii. It will be observed that neither of the apostles names the formidable personage at whom he points; and doubtless for the same reason. This circumstance alone might suffice to suggest who is intended. There could be very few persons whose name it would not be safe to utter, probably not more than one, and that one the mightiest in the land. We cannot suppose that the name is suppressed merely for the sake of mystification: there must have been an adequate motive; that motive must have been a prudential one; and if prudential, then, no doubt, political, viz. to avoid incurring the suspicion of disaffection towards the government.
In addition to this there is a correspondence so minute and so manifold between ‘the man of sin’ of St. Paul and ‘the beast’ of St. John as to render it all but certain that they both refer to the same individual. We have already, on independent grounds and treating each subject separately, arrived at the conclusion that the Emperor Nero is intended by both apostles, and when we come to the place the two portraitures side by side this conclusion is decisively established. It is only necessary to glance at the parallel descriptions in order to be convinced that they depict the same individual, and that individual the monster Nero:---
THE FALL OF BABYLON.
The next scene of the vision represents the fate of the harlot city, which occupies the whole of chap. xvii. First, a mighty angel, whose glory lightens the earth, proclaims with a loud voice, in nearly the same words as in chap. xiv. 8, ‘Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen.’ Her doom is the consequence of her sin, and at this supreme moment her moral degradation and debasement are most emphatically declared: ‘She is become the habitation of demons, and a hold of every unclean spirit, and a hold of every unclean and hated bird,’ etc. How true this description of Jerusalem in her decadence is the pages of Josephus testify:---
‘That period,’ he tells us, ‘had somehow become so prolific in iniquity of every description among the Jews, that no work of evil was left unperpetrated, . . . so universal was the contagion both in public and private, and such the emulation to surpass each other in acts of impiety towards God and of injustice towards their neighbours.’
‘No generation ever existed more prolific in crime.’
‘I am of opinion that had the Romans deferred the punishment of these wretches, either the earth would have opened and swallowed up the city, or it would have been swept away by a deluge, or have shared the thunderbolts of the land of Sodom.’
Next, a voice is heard from heaven calling upon the people of God to come out of the doomed city,---‘Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.’ We observe here how the final catastrophe is kept suspended,---again and again it seems as if the end had actually come, and then we find new circumstances interposed, and the blow apparently arrested when in the very act of falling. This feature of the Apocalypse greatly heightens the dramatic effect and powerfully stimulates the interest in the action. It might have been supposed that all the faithful had long before this abandoned the doomed city; but we are not to look for the same strict consistency and sequence in a poetical and figurative description as in a historical narrative. Besides, the imagery is partly derived from the prophetic description of the fall of ancient Babylon as set forth by Jeremiah (chap. li.), where we find this very call to ‘come out of her’ (ver. 45).
After this follows a solemn and pathetic dirge, if it may be so called, over the fallen city, whose last hour is now come. The kings or rulers of the land, the merchant-traders and the seamen who knew her in the plentitude of her power and glory, now lament over her fall. The royal city, the mart of trade and wealth, is wrapt in flames, and the mariners and merchants who were enriched by her traffic stand afar off, beholding the smoke of her burning, and crying, ‘What city is like unto this great city?’ The description given in this chapter of the wealth and luxury of the mystic Babylon might seem scarcely appropriate to Jerusalem were it not that we have in Josephus ample evidence that there is no exaggeration even in this highly-wrought representation. More than once the Jewish historian speaks of the magnificence and vast wealth of Jerusalem. It is very remarkable that the inventory of the spoils taken from the treasury of the temple contains almost every one of the articles enumerated in this lamentation over the fallen city,---‘Gold, silver, precious stones, purple, scarlet, cinnamon, odours, ointments, and frankincense.’
No less striking is the description given by Josephus of the spoils of the captured city, which were carried in procession through the streets of Rome in the triumph of Vespasian and Titus, and which fully justify the picture of profusion and magnificence drawn in the Apocalypse.
The last scene in the tragedy of the harlot city follows. A mighty angel takes up a stone, like a great millstone, and casts it into the sea, saying, ‘Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all’ (ver. 21). Her desolation is now complete: her glory is departed; she is left to silence and solitude, for ‘in one hour her judgment is come,’ ‘in one hour she is made desolate.’
This it may be said is poetry, and no doubt it is; but it is also history. So total was the destruction of Jerusalem that Josephus says ‘there was no longer anything to lead those who visited the spot to believe that it had ever been inhabited.’
We have already commented on the concluding words of the chapter, which furnish decisive evidence of the identity of the harlot city: ‘In her was found the blood of the prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain in the land’ (ver. 24). To no other city than Jerusalem will these words apply, and they conclusively demonstrate that she is the subject of the whole visionary representation. She was pre-eminently the ‘murderer of the prophets,’ and of her their blood was to be required, according to the prediction of our Lord,---‘That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed in the land’ (Matt. xxiii. 35).
We might suppose that we had now reached the catastrophe of the vision, since the judgment of the great harlot is complete, and she disappears from the scene; but the theme is still continued through the next two chapters, which are mainly occupied with acts of judgment on the other enemies of Christ and of His church.
First, however, we have a song of triumph in heaven over the fallen and condemned criminal whose fearful judgment has been consummated (chap. xix. 1-5). It is a Hallelujah chorus of a great multitude, whose voice is like the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, ascribing glory to God for the justice executed on the harlot city, and the avenging of the blood of His servants at her hand. Now is fulfilled the promise of God that He would speedily avenge His elect, who cried to Him day and night. Now, also, the kingdom of God is come: the long-predicted, long-expected consummation for which the prayers of the saints have ceaselessly ascended to heaven---‘Thy kingdom come.’ Messiah’s great victory is won; His kingdom has reached its full development; He surrenders His delegated authority to His Father; and a burst of acclamation resounds through all heaven, ‘Alleluia! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.’
But the coming of the kingdom is associated with other events, one of the chief of which is ‘the marriage of the Lamb,’ for which the note of preparation is now given, though the details of the event are reserved for the seventh and last vision. The nuptials of the Lamb are evidently announced proleptically, in accordance with the frequent usage of the Apocalypse. This public and solemn union of Christ and His church is what is shadowed forth in the parables of the marriage feast (Matt. xxii.) and of the ten virgins (Matt. xxv.). It is the marriage supper of the great King, to which the first invited guests refused to come, and shamefully treated and slew the king’s messengers. Now judgment has overtaken them: ‘The king sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city’ (Matt. xxii. 7).
But before this happy consummation takes place, acts of judgment have to be executed. Mystical Babylon has been judged, but the other enemies of the King---the beast, his legate the false prophet, and the dragon---have yet to receive condign punishment.
JUDGMENT OF THE BEAST AND HIS CONFEDERATE POWERS.
Chap. xix. 11-21---‘And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knoweth, but he himself. And he was clothed in a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called the Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the wine-press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath upon his vesture and on his thigh a name wirtten, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; that ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captians, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great. And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth; and all the fowls were filled with their flesh.’
This magnificent passage is descriptive of the great event which occupies so prominent a place in the New Testament prophecy, the Parousia, or coming in glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. He comes from heaven; He comes in His kingdom; ‘on his head are many crowns;’ he comes with His holy angels; ‘the armies of heaven follow him;’ He comes to execute judgment on His enemies; He comes in glory. It may be said, Why is the Parousia placed after the judgment of the harlot city, and not before? It must be remembered that it is a poem rather than a history that we are now reading; a drama, rather than a journal of transactions, and that there is no book in which poetical and dramatic effect is more studied than in the Apocalypse. These episodical visions are often taken out of their strict chronological order that they may be displayed in fuller detail and make an adequate impression on the mind of the reader. At the same time we do not admit that there is an anachronism in the place which the Parousia occupies. If we examine the prophetic discourse on the Mount of Olives we shall find the same order of events. It is immediately after the great tribulation that the sign of the Son of man appears in heaven, and they ‘see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory’ (Matt. xxiv. 29, 30). The scene represented in this vision is that very event. The Lord Jesus is ‘revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Thess. i. 7, 8).
The sequel of the chapter relates the victory of the Lamb over the enemies of His cause. An angel standing in the sun summons all the fowls of heaven to prey upon the carcasses of the slain in the coming conflict. The armies of the beast and his confederate powers are marshalled to make war upon the Messiah. The two hosts engage, and the enemies of Christ are routed. The beast is taken prisoner, and with him his false prophet that ruled in his name. ‘These two were cast alive into the lake of fire which burneth with brimstone,’ while their followers perish, ‘slain with the sword of him that sitteth on the horse, whose sword goeth out of his mouth.
If it be asked, What do these symbols represent? the answer is, Assuredly no literal conflict with carnal weapons. It is not on any battle-field on earthly ground that the glorified Redeemer and His heavenly legions confront the banded hosts of earth and hell. We cannot go to the pages of Josephus or Tacitus, or any other historian, for the events which correspond with these symbols. We read in them two great truths: Christ must conquer; His enemies must perish. Nevertheless, there is a kernel of historical fact in this symbolism. Jus as in the symbolic representation of the great harlot we find the historical fact of the destruction of Jerusalem, so in this capture and execution of the wild beast and his congener we find the historical fact of the destruction of Nero and his lieutenant, or deputy, in Judea. This is the core of historic fact at the centre of the vision. Jerusalem, the harlot city, perished in fire and blood. Nero, the beast king, the sanguinary persecutor of the Christians; and Gessius Florus, the tyrant who goaded the unhappy Jews into revolt, both perished by a violent death. These events were really divine judgments, foreseen and predicted long before their occurrence, and written in lurid characters on the page of history, visible and legible for ever. These are the historical facts set forth in all the pomp and splendour of symbolical imagery in the Apocalypse. The symbols were worthy of the facts, and the facts are worthy of the symbols. No doubt there is here something of an anachronism. The death of Nero is placed in the vision subsequent to the judgment of Jerusalem, whereas it actually preceded that event by two years or more. As we have before remarked, something must be conceded to poetic license. In an epic, a drama, or a vision, it is unreasonable to require strict chronological sequence. Now the Apocalypse is composed with consummate art. As Henry More long ago remarked, ‘There never was any book penned with that artifice as this of the Apocalypse, as if every word were weighed in a balance before it was set down.’ The dramatic effect is certainly greatly heightened by the capture and punishment of the beast being placed where they are. The first and most prominent place is naturally given to the harlot city, and the Seer having begun with her judgment carries it on to its final consummation. He then returns to the beast, and depicts his fate; and, lastly, in the twentieth chapter, proceeds to describe the punishment inflicted on the third hostile power, the dragon.
There is, however, another answer to the charge of anachronism. It deserves consideration whether this whole scene of the great battle and victory of Christ the King, and the punishment of the beast and his armies, may not be properly conceived as taking place in the spirit, not in the flesh? That is, whether it may not be the representation of transactions in the unseen state; the judgment of the dead, and not of the living. An earthly transaction it certainly is not; and if we regard it as the symbolic representation of the judgment and condemnation of the enemies of the Lamb in the spirit-world---a glimpse of that great judicial scene which is depicted in Matt. xxv., ‘when the Son of man shall come in his glory, and before him shall be gathered all the nations,’---this would relieve the vision of any anachronism and abundantly satisfy all the requirements of the case. The probability of this view is strongly confirmed by the fact that this punishment of the beast and his armies follows the allusion to the marriage supper of the Lamb, an event which is certainly supposed to take place in the spiritual and eternal state.
THE JUDGMENT OF THE DRAGON.
Chap. xx. 1-3.---‘And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the abyss, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he might deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.’
We now approach a portion of the Apocalypse which is involved in much obscurity, and which, from the very nature of the case, passes beyond the limits which, by the express declarations of the writer, again and again repeated, circumscribe the rest of the prophecy of this book.
The fact that such a protracted period as a thousand years is embraced in the visions of the Apocalypse is considered by many an incontrovertible proof that the fulfillment of the predictions which it contains is not to be restricted to a brief period. Dean Alford, for example, says:---
‘The en tacei [shortly] confessedly contains, among other periods, a period of a thousand years. On what principle are we to affirm that it does not embrace a period vastly greater than this in its whole contents?’
That which appears so insurmountable an objection in the eyes of Dean Alford is regarded as none at all by Moses Stuart, who says,---
‘The portion of the book which contains this [reference to a distant period] is so small, and that part of the book which was speedily fulfilled is so large, that no reasonable difficulty can be made concerning the declaration before us. ‘En tacei, i.e. speedily, did the things, on account of which the book was principally written, in fact take place.’
Some interpreters indeed attempt to get over the difficulty by supposing that the thousand years, being a symbolic number, may represent a period of very short duration, and so bring the whole within the prescribed apocalyptic limits; but this method of interpretation appears to us so violent an unnatural that we cannot hesitate to reject it. The act of binding and shutting up the dragon does indeed come within the ‘shortly’ of the apocalyptic statement, for it is coincident, or nearly so, with the judgment of the harlot and the beast; but the term of the dragon’s imprisonment is distinctly stated to be for a thousand years, and thus must necessarily pass entirely beyond the field of vision so strictly and constantly limited by the book itself. We believe, however, that this is the solitary example which the whole book contains of this excursion beyond the limits of ‘shortly;’ and we agree with Stuart that no reasonable difficulty can be made on account of this single exception to the rule. We shall also find as we proceed that the events referred to as taking place after the termination of the thousand years are predicted as in a prophecy, and not represented as in a vision. Indeed the passage, chap. xx. 5-10, seems evidently introduced parenthetically, interrupting the continuity of the narrative, which is again resumed, as we shall see, at ver. 11.
The overthrow and punishment of the enemies of Christ would evidently be incomplete without a similar act of judgment on the chief instigator and head of the confederacy, the dragon, or Satan. Accordingly his time has now come: he is seized, chained, and cast into the abyss, which is sealed over him, and he is sentenced to be imprisoned there for a period called ‘a thousand years.’
This act of seizing, chaining, and casting into the abyss is represented as taking place under the eye of the Seer, being introduced by the usual formula, ‘And I saw.’ It is an act contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the judgments executed on the other criminals, the harlot and the beast. This part of the vision, then, falls within the proper limits of apocalyptic vision, and is an integral part of the series of great events connected with the Parousia.
Are we, then, to suppose that anything equivalent to this symbol, the binding and imprisoning of Satan, has actually taken place, and took place at the time indicated, viz. the close of the Jewish dispensation? We have no hesitation in answering in the affirmative, and we think there is the clearest warrant both in Scripture and in history for this conclusion.
1. No one will contend that the symbols in the vision require a literal or physical chaining of the dragon. Common sense will teach that all that is meant is the repression and restriction of satanic power during the period indicated. Now there seems no reason to doubt that before and during our Saviour’s incarnation there was an energy and activity of moral evil existing in the earth far exceeding anything that is now known among men. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the period of our Lord’s earthly life was a season of intense and unparalleled activity among the powers of darkness. If they knew that the champion of God, the Redeemer of mankind, was come in order ‘that he might destroy the works of the devil,’ there was cause for their alarm; and our Lord’s temptations in the wilderness, and the malignant opposition to Christ and His cause, everywhere ascribed in the New Testament to Satan, reveal both the knowledge of the adversary respecting the Saviour’s mission and his unceasing efforts to counteract it. In addition to this, the remarkable prevalence of the mysterious phenomenon of demoniacal possession in the time of Christ is a decisive proof of the presence and activity of a malefic spiritual influence, in a form and degree which to us is unknown, and to many even incredible. Unless, then, we are prepared to give up the reality of that mysterious influence, and resolve it into mere popular ignorance or delusion, we must admit that there has been a marked and decisive check to the power of Satan over men since the time of Christ. The same may be said respecting the prevalence of moral evil in that age of the world. Let any one consider what Rome was in the days of Nero, and what Jerusalem was in the closing period of the Jewish commonwealth, and he will at once concede the undeniable fact of an abnormal and portentous development of wickedness such as to us appears incredible. Juvenal and Tacitus will bear witness of Rome, and Josephus of Jerusalem; and it is not contrary to reason, while wholly agreeable to Revelation, to infer that such enormous and colossal vice betrays the operation of a satanic influence.
2. It deserves, further, to be considered that the sin of idolatry, with all its mimicry of supernatural and divine power,---a system which the Scriptures recognise as pre-eminently the work of the devil,---was in our Saviour’s time in full and undisturbed possession of nearly the entire world. When we remember what Greece was, and what Rome was, in respect of their national religion, in the apostolic age; the authority, antiquity, and popularity of their gods, and the way in which their worship had entwined itself around every act of public and private life, it seems astonishing that a system so time-honoured and inveterate should have withered away so as to wholly disappeared from the face of the earth. No one can be at a loss to account for this remarkable change: it is entirely due to the influence of Christianity; and but for this new element in civilisation there is no reason to think that the ancient superstitions of Heathenism would have died out or given place to something better.
3. It is no less certain that this marvellous revolution must be dated from the time when the Gospel began to be preached in the apostolic age. We have the most convincing proofs that the change is not to be explained by the advancement of knowledge, or science, or philosophy, nor by the natural progress of human society, but that it was predicted and expected from the very birth of Christianity as the effect of the redemptive work of Christ. Nothing can be more explicit than our Lord’s declarations on this subject. When the seventy disciples returned with joy to report how even the devils were subject to them through their Master’s name, Jesus said to them, ‘I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven’ (Luke x. 18). It is absurd to explain this as an allusion to Satan’s original expulsion from heaven, before the creation of the world; it is evidently a figurative declaration that in the success of His messengers our Lord recognised and foresaw the coming overthrow of the power of Satan:---
‘Before the intuitive glance of His spirit lay open the results which were to flow from His redemptive work after His ascension into heaven. He saw, in spirit, the kingdom of God advancing in triumph over the kingdom of Satan.’
To the same effect is our Lord’s saying,---‘Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out’ (John xii. 31). What meaning can be attached to these significant words if they do not imply that a powerful check was about to be given to the influence of Satan over the minds of men; a check arising wholly from the death of Christ upon the cross?
But it is in this apocalyptic vision that we see the actual representation of this curbing of Satan’s power. It is here evidently defined as to the time of its commencement, and associated with the downfall of Jerusalem, and the consequent abrogation of the Jewish dispensation. Nor is there any absurdity in accepting this date. The abolition of Judaism was the removal of the most formidable obstacle to the progress of Christianity; but, besides this, we have the most express assurance in the New Testament that this was the period of the consummation of the Messianic kingdom, and of Christ’s putting down all hostile rule, and authority, and power (1 Cor. xv. 24).
We conclude, therefore, that at ‘the end of the age’ a marked and decisive check was given to the power of Satan; which check is symbolically represented in the Apocalypse by the chaining and imprisoning of the dragon in the abyss. It does not follow from this that error and evil were banished from the earth. It is enough to show that this was, as Schlegel says,---
‘the decisive crisis between ancient and modern times; ‘ and that the introduction of Christianity ‘has changed and regenerated not only government and science, but the whole system of human life.’
There was an hour when the tide of human wickedness began to turn: it was at the very period when that tide was in flood; ever since that time it has been ebbing, and we have no difficulty in recognising the first abatement of the power of evil as corresponding in time with the event here designated the binding of Satan and his imprisonment in the abyss.
Respecting the duration of this restriction of satanic power it is not easy to determine; but it seems, on the whole, most in consonance with the symbolic character of the Apocalypse to understand the thousand years as significant of a long but indefinite period. When we have high numbers stated in the Apocalypse they are usually, if not invariably, to be understood indefinitely. For example, it is not to be supposed that the hundred and forty and four thousand of the sealed signify that number, and no more and no less. It would be absurd to say that there were exactly twelve thousand, to a man, saved out of each of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. The conception is appropriate in a vision, but incredible in a historical statement. In like manner the army of the horsemen in chap. ix. 16 is set down as two hundred millions; but no sane commentator ever ventured to assign to this a precise and literal signification. Following these analogies we are disposed to regard the thousand years as a definite for an indefinite period, covering doubtless more than that space of time, but how much more none can tell.
THE REIGN OF THE SAINTS AND MARTYRS.
Chap. xx. 4-6.---‘And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them; and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and whosoever had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. [But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.]
We approach with the greatest diffidence this mysterious passage, carefully avoiding guesses and conjectural explanations, as well as any attempt to force in any way the natural signification of the words.
The first thing which we note is, that the vision now described falls within the apocalyptic period. It is introduced by the formula ‘And I saw,’ which marks that which comes under the personal observation of the Seer.
Next, it is to be remarked that there is an evident antithesis between this scene and the act of judgment executed on the beast and his followers. It is the usual method of the Apocalypse thus to place in striking contrast the reward of the righteous and the retribution of the wicked.
We further observe that there is a manifest allusion in this passage to the promise of our Lord to His disciples, ‘Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Matt. xix. 28). That period has now arrived. The paliggenesia, or regeneration, when the kingdom of the Messiah was to come, is now regarded as present, and the disciples are glorified with their glorified Master: ‘judgment is given unto them;’ they ‘sit upon thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’ We are to conceive of the multitude of the redeemed from the land---the hundred and forty and four thousand out of all the tribes of the children of Israel---as forming the kingdom, or subjects, placed under the spiritual government of the apostolic brotherhood.
In addition to these the Seer beholds ‘the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God,’ and also (for the word oitinez appears to indicate that this is another class who are specified) ‘whosoever had not worshipped the beast, nor his image;’ these also ‘live and reign with Christ,’ an expression which implies that they too had ‘thrones’ and ‘judgment’ given to them. It is impossible not to recognise in the ‘souls of them that were beheaded’ the same martyred saints whom the Seer beheld, in the vision of the sixth seal, lying under the altar and crying for vengeance on their murderers. They were comforted with the message that in a little while, when their fellow-servants who were about to suffer as they had done had joined them, their prayer should be answered. Now that time is come; their enemies have perished, and they live and reign with Christ.
This vision looks back also on the remarkable passage in 1 Peter iv. 6. These martyrs are the dead to whom the comforting message came [euhggelisqh]. They had been condemned by the judgment of men while in the flesh, but now they live in their spirit by the judgment of God, which has vindicated and crowned them. What a new light is thrown upon the words of St. Peter, zwsin de kata qeon pneumati, by the language of the Apocalypse, ezhsan kai ebasileusan. This is one of those subtle coincidences which are often the surest tests of a true interpretation.
These witnessing and suffering souls are represented as enjoying a privilege and a distinction not accorded to others: ‘They lived and reign with Christ a thousand years: while the rest of the dead live not again until the thousand years are finished.’ This is the crux of the passage, and presents a very formidable difficulty. The only quarter in which we can discern any ray of light is in the direction of the inquiry, Who are ‘the rest of the dead’? Are they the rest of the pious dead, or the wicked dead, or both the righteous and the wicked alike? The judgment revolts from the idea that they are the pious dead. if they were to be excluded from participation in the blessedness of heaven for a vast period, how could it be said, ‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth’? We are compelled, therefore, to imagine the possibility of the other alternative, and that the passage speaks of the wicked dead, though such a supposition is not without its difficulties. in this case ‘the first resurrection’ includes only the dead in Christ; and this may be the true interpretation, for the next verse certainly intimates that all who have a part in ‘the first resurrection’ are blessed and holy, and enjoy the high privilege and honour of ‘reigning with Christ.’
One thing more to note, and that is, that the reign of the suffering and witnessing saints, and of all who have part in the first resurrection, is not said to be on earth. They live and reign ‘with Christ;’ they are ‘with him where he is, beholding his glory.’
THE LOOSING OF SATAN AFTER THE THOUSAND YEARS.
Chap. xx. 7-10.---[‘And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth [land], God and Magog, to gather them together to the battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth [land], and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast in to the lake of fire and brimstone, where also the beast and the false prophet are, and they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.’]
The mystery and obscurity which hang over a portion of the preceding context become still deeper, if possible, here. There are, however, certain points which seem determinable.
1. It is evident that this passage is direct prophecy, and not a visionary representation taking place before the eyes of the Seer. It is not introduced by the usual formula in such cases, ‘And I saw,’ but in the style of prophetic prediction.
2. It is evident that the prediction of what is to take place at the close of a thousand years does not come within what we have ventured to call ‘apocalyptic limits.’ These limits, as we are again and again warned in the book itself, are rigidly confined within a very narrow compass; the things shown are ‘shortly to come to pass.’ It would have been an abuse of language to say that the events at the distance of a thousand years were to come to pass shortly; we are therefore compelled to regard this prediction as lying outside the apocalyptic limits altogether.
3. We must consequently regard this prediction of the loosing of Satan, and the events that follow, as still future, and therefore unfulfilled. We know of nothing recorded in history which can be adduced as in any way a probably fulfillment of this prophecy. Westein has hazarded the hypothesis that possibly it may symbolise the Jewish revolt under Barcochebas, in the reign of Hadrian; but the suggestion is too extravagant to be entertained for a moment.
4. There is an evident connection between this prophecy and the vision in Ezekiel concerning Gog and Magog (chaps. xxxviii. xxxix.), which is equally mysterious and obscure. In both the scene of conflict is laid in the same place, the land of Israel; and in both the enemies of God meet with a signal and disastrous overthrow.
5. The result of the whole is, that we must consider the passage which treats of the thousand years, from ver. 5 to ver. 10, as an intercalation or parenthesis. The Seer, having begun to relate the judgment of the dragon, passes in ver. 7 out of the apocalyptic limits to conclude what he had to say respecting the final punishment of ‘the old serpent,’ and the fate that awaited him at the close of a lengthened period called ‘a thousand years.’ This we believe to be the sole instance in the whole book of an excursion into distant futurity; and we are disposed to regard the whole parenthesis as relating to matters still future and unfilfilled. The broken continuity of the narration is joined again at ver. 11, where the Seer resumes the account of what he beheld in vision, introducing it by the familiar formula ‘And I saw.’
THE CATASTROPHE OF THE SIXTH VISION.
Chap. xx. 11-15.---‘And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them: and they were judged, every man according to their works. And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.’
These verses bring us to the catastrophe of the sixth vision. Like the other catastrophes which have preceded it, it is a solemn act of judgment, or rather the same great judicial transaction presented in a new aspect. The Seer now resumes the narration which had been interrupted by the digression respecting the thousand years, taking up the thread which was dropped at the close of ver. 4. We are therefore brought back to the same standpoint as in the first and fourth verses. This catastrophe naturally and necessarily belongs to the ‘same series of events as have been represented in the vision of the harlot city, and falls within the prescribed apocalyptic limits, being among the things ‘which must shortly come to pass.’
As to the catastrophe itself, there can be no question that it represents a solemn judicial investigation on the vastest scale. It is the great consummation, or one aspect of it, towards which all the action of the Apocalypse moves, and which is reached, in one form or another, at the close of each successive vision. There are, however, special features in every catastrophe which distinguish it from the others, notwithstanding that they refer to the same great event. A comparison with the preceding catastrophes will show how much the present has in common with them and what is peculiar to itself. In the catastrophe of the vision of the seven seals, for example, we have the very same imagery of the heaven departing, and the mountains and islands being moved out of their places (chap. vi. 14). In the catastrophe of the vision of the seven vials the same image is repeated (chap. xvi. 20). In the catastrophe of the seventh trumpet it is declared that ‘the time of the dead, that they should be judged, is come,’ etc. (chap. xi. 18); and in the catastrophe of the seven mystic figures we see ‘a white cloud, and on the cloud one sitting, like unto the Son of man’ (chap. xiv. 14), corresponding with ‘the great white throne, and him that sat on it,’ in the passage now before us. There are some features, however, peculiar to this catastrophe,---the books of judgment; the sea, death, and Hades, yielding up their dead; and the casting of death and Hades into the lake of fire.
There is no reason to doubt that the judgment scene depicted here is identical with that described by our Lord in Matt. xxv. 31-46. We have the same ‘throne of glory,’ the same gathering of all the nations, the same discrimination of the judged according to their works, and the same ‘everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’
But if the judgment scene described in this passage be identical with that in Matt. xxv., it follows that it is not ‘the end of the world’ in the sense of its being the dissolution of the material fabric of the globe and the close of human history, but that which is so frequently predicted as accompanying the sunteleia tou aiwnoz,---the end of the age, or termination of the Jewish dispensation. That great consummation is always represented as a judgment-epoch. It is the time of the Parousia, the coming of Christ in glory to vindicate and reward His faithful servants, and to judge and destroy His enemies. There is a remarkable unity and consistency in the teachings of Scripture on this subject; and whether it be in the gospels, or in the epistles, or in the visions of the Apocalypse, we find one harmonious and concurrent scheme of doctrine, all parts mutually confirming and sustaining one another,---a proof of their common origin in the same divine fountain of inspiration and truth.