An Exposition of Revelation 4 — 22.
The Earth-Trial. (Rev. 14.)
"First-Fruits." (vv. 1-5.)
The manifestation of evil is complete; we are now to see God's dealings as to it. These acts of Satan and his ministers are a plain challenge of all His rights in Israel and the earth; and further patience would be no longer patience, but dishonor. Hence we find now, as in answer to the challenge, the Lamb upon Mount Zion, — that is, upon David's seat; and as the beast's followers have his mark upon them, so the followers of Christ, associated with Him here, have His and His Father's name upon their foreheads. What this means can scarcely be mistaken.
Zion is not only identified in Scripture with David and his sovereignty, but very plainly with the sovereign grace of God, when everything entrusted to man had failed in Israel, priesthood had broken down, the ark gone into captivity in the enemy's land, and although restored by the judgment of God upon the Philistines, was no more sought unto in the days of Saul. He, though Jehovah's anointed king, had become apostate. All might seem to have gone, but it was not so; and in this extremity, as the seventy-eighth psalm says, "Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, . . . and He smote His adversaries backward. Moreover, He refused the tent of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim, but chose the tribe of Judah — the Mount Zion which He loved. . . . He chose also David His servant." Nor was this a temporary choice: as a later psalm adds, "For Jehovah hath chosen Zion; He hath desired it for His habitation. This is My rest forever: here will I dwell, for I have desired it." (Ps. 132:13, 14.)
Thus, though the long interval of so many centuries may seem to argue repentance upon God's part, it is not really so: "God is not man, that He should lie; nor the son of man, that He should repent." The Lamb on Zion shows us the true David on the covenanted throne, and Zion by this lifted above the hills indeed. The vision is of course anticipative, for by and by we find that the beast still exists. The end is put first, as it is with Him who sees it from the beginning, and then we trace the steps that lead up to it.
But who are the hundred and forty-four thousand associated with the Lamb? Naturally one would identify them with the similar number sealed out of the twelve tribes in the seventh chapter, and the more so that the Lamb's and His Father's name upon their foreheads seems to be the effect of this very sealing, which was upon the forehead also. No other mark is given us as to them in the former vision, of whom we read as exempted from the power of the locusts afterward. Here, if it is not directly affirmed that these are sealed, yet it seems evident, a seal having been often a stamp with a name and the purpose of the sealing in the former case being to mark them out as God's, this is manifestly accomplished by the name upon them. This open identification with Christ in the day of His rejection might seem to be what would expose them to all the power of the enemy, yet it is that which in fact marks them for security. In reality, what a protection is the open confession of Christ as the One we serve! There is, in fact, no safer place for us than that of necessary conflict under the Lord's banner; and the end is glory. Here they stand — these confessors, openly confessed by Him on His side; and their having been through the suffering and the conflict is just that which brings them here upon the mount of royalty: it is "if we suffer, we shall also reign with Him."
Another inestimable privilege they have got, though clearly an earthly, not a heavenly company: they are able to learn a song that is sung in heaven. "And I heard a voice from heaven, as a voice of many waters, and as a voice of great thunder; and the voice which I heard was of harpers harping with their harps; and they sing a new song before the throne, and before the four living beings and the elders: and no one was able to learn the song, except the hundred and forty-four thousand that were purchased from the earth."
It is clear that the company here occupy a place analogous to that of the Gentile multitude of the seventh chapter, who stand before the throne and the living ones also. The vision in either case being anticipative, we can understand that earth and heaven are at this time brought near together, and that "standing" before the throne and "singing" before the throne involve no necessary heavenly place for those who sing or stand there. Here they stand upon Mount Zion while they sing before the throne, — if, that is, the singers are primarily the hundred and forty-four thousand, as many think. What seems in opposition to this is that the voice is heard from heaven, and that the company on Mount Zion are spoken of as learners of the song. On the other side, the difficulty is in answering the question, Who are these harpers, plainly human ones, who are distinguished from the elders, yet in heaven at this time? Remembering what the time is may help us here. May they not be the martyrs of the period with which the prophecy in general has to do, — those seen when the fourth seal is opened, and those for whom they are bidden to wait — the sufferers under the beast afterward? two classes which are seen as completing the ranks of the first resurrection in the twentieth chapter. These would give us a third class, evidently — neither the heavenly elders nor the sealed ones of Israel; and yet in closest sympathy with the latter. It could not be thought strange that these should be able to learn their song. And at the time when the Lamb is King on Zion, this third class would certainly be found filling such a place as that of the harpers here.
This seems to meet every difficulty, indeed: for their song would clearly be a new song, such as neither the Old Testament nor the revelation of the Church-mystery could account for; while the living victors over the beast would seem rightly here to enter into the song of others, rather than to originate it themselves.
But they have their own peculiar place, as on Mount Zion, first-fruits of earth's harvest to God and to the Lamb, purchased from among men, (grace, through the blood of Christ, the secret of their blessing, as of all other,) but answering to that claim in a true undefiled condition, in virgin-faithfulness to Him who is afresh espousing Israel to Himself. In their mouth thus no lie is found, for they are blameless: and these last words we shall surely read aright when we remember that to those who have not received the love of the truth, "God will send strong delusion, that they may believe the lie" (2 Thess. 2:11), and the apostle's question, "Who is the liar, but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ?" and that "he is the antichrist who denieth the Father and the Son." (1 John 2:21, 22.) The names of the Lamb and of His Father are on the foreheads of these sealed ones.
The everlasting gospel. (vv. 6, 7.)
It is a foregleam of the day that comes that the first vision of this chapter shows us: but, although the day is coming fast, we have first to see the harbingers of judgment, and then the judgment, before it can arrive. Righteousness, unheeded when it spoke in grace, must now speak in judgment, that "the work of righteousness" may be "peace; and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever." (Isa. 32:17.)
In this way it is that we come now to what seems to us perhaps a strange, sad gospel, and yet is the everlasting one, which an "angel flying in mid-heaven," preaches to the inhabitants of the earth. And this is what his voice declares: "Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment is come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth and the sea and the fountains of waters."
How any one could confound this gospel of judgment with the gospel of salvation by the cross would seem hard to understand, except as we realize how utterly the difference of dispensations has been ignored in common teaching, and how it is taken as a matter of course that the "gospel" must be always one and the same gospel; which even the epithet "everlasting" is easily taken to prove. Does it not indeed assert it? — that the same gospel was preached, of course, in a clearer or a less clear fashion, all through the dispensation of law and before it?
No doubt the everlasting gospel must be that which from the beginning was preached, and has been preaching ever since, although it should be plain that "the hour of His judgment is come" is just what with truth no one in Christian times could say. Plain it is too that the command to worship God the Creator is not what any one who knew the gospel could take as that. In fact, the gospel element, or glad tidings, in the angel message is just found in that which seems most incongruous with it today — that the "hour of His judgment is come." What else in it is "tidings" at all? That certainly is; and if serious, yet to those who know that just in this way deliverance is to come for the earth, it is simple enough that the coming of the delivering judgment is in fact the gospel.
Listen to that same gospel, as a preacher of old declared it. With what a rapture of exultation does he break out as he cries, —
"Oh sing unto the Lord a new song!
Sing unto the Lord, all the earth.
Sing unto the Lord, bless His name;
Show forth His salvation from day to day!
Declare His glory among the nations,
His marvelous works among all the peoples!
* * * * *
Tremble before Him, all the earth!
Say among the nations that the Lord reigneth;
The world also is established, that it cannot be moved:
He shall judge the peoples with equity.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice!
Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof!
Let the field exult, and all that is therein!
Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord;
For He cometh, for He cometh, to judge the earth.
He shall judge the world with righteousness,
And the peoples with His truth!" (Ps. 96.)
Here is a gospel before Christianity; and it has been sounding out all through Christianity, whether men have heard it or have not. And it is but the echo of what we hear in Eden, before the gate of the first paradise shuts upon the fallen and guilty pair, — that the seed of the woman shall crush the serpent's head. That is a gospel which has been ringing through the ages since, and which may well be called the everlasting one. Its form is only altered by the fact that now at last its promise is to be fulfilled. "Judgment" is now to "return to righteousness." The "rod" is "iron," but henceforth in the Shepherd's hand. Man's day is past, the day of the Lord is come; and every blow inflicted shall be on the head of evil, the smiting down of sorrow and of all that brings it. What can he be but rebel-hearted, who shall refuse to join the anthem when the King-Creator comes into His own again? The angel-evangel is thus a claim for worship from all people, and to Him that cometh every knee shall bow.
The Fall of Babylon. (v. 8.)
That the message of judgment is indeed a "gospel" we find plainly in the next announcement, which is marked as that of a "second" angel, a "third" following, similar in character, as we shall see directly. Here it is announced that Babylon the Great has fallen: before, indeed, her picture has been presented to us, which we find only in the seventeenth chapter. The name itself is, however, significant, as that of Israel's great enemy, under whose power she lay prostrate seventy years, and itself derived from God's judgment upon an old confederation, the seat of which became afterward the centre of Nimrod's empire. But that was not Babylon the Great, although human historians would have given her, no doubt, the palm; with God, she was only the type of a power more arrogant and evil and defiant of Him than the old Chaldean despot, and into whose hands the Church of Christ has fallen, — the heavenly, not the earthly people. It is an old history rehearsed in a new sphere and with other names, — a new witness of the unity of man morally in every generation.
The sin on account of which it falls reminds us still of Babylon, while it has also its peculiar aggravation. Of her of old it was said, "Babylon hath been a golden cup in the Lord's hand that made all the earth drunken: the nations have drunk of her wine; therefore the nations are mad." (Jer. 5:7.) But it is not said, "the wine of the fury of her fornication." This latter expression shows that Babylon is not here a mere political but a spiritual power. One who belongs professedly to Christ has prostituted herself to the world for the sake of power. She has inflamed the nations with unholy principles, which act upon men's passions, (easily stirred,) as we see, in fact, in Rome. By such means she has gained and retained power; by such, after centuries of change, she holds it still. But the time is at hand when they will at last fail her, and this is what the angel declares now to have come. Babylon is fallen, and that fall is final: it is the judgment of God upon her; it is retributive justice for centuries of corruption; it is a note of the everlasting gospel, which claims the earth for God, and announces its deliverance from its oppressors. But we have yet only the announcement: the details will be given in due place.
The Warning to the Beast-Worshipers. (vv. 9-13.)
A third angel follows, noted as that, and belonging, therefore, to the company of those that bring the gospel of blessing for the earth. That it comes in the shape of a woe, we have seen to be in no wise against this. Babylon is not the only evil which must perish that Christ may reign; and Babylon's removal only makes way at first for the full development of another form of it more openly blasphemous than this. The woman makes way for the man, — what professes at least subjection to Christ, for that which is open revolt against Him. Here, therefore, the woe threatened is far more sweeping and terrible than in the former case; there are people of God who come out of Babylon, and who therefore were in her to come out (Rev. 18:4). But the beast in its final form insures the perdition of all who follow it: "If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead or in his hand, the same shall drink" — or "he also shall drink" — "of the wine of the wrath of God which is poured out without mixture into the cup of His indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb; and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever; and they have no rest, day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name."
It is the beast who destroys Babylon, after having for a time supported her: his own pretension tolerates no divided allegiance, and in him the unbelief of a world culminates in self-worship. Here God's mercy can only take the form of loud and emphatic threatening of extreme penalty for those who worship the beast. In proportion to the fearful character of the evil does the Lord give open assurance of the doom upon it, so that none may unknowingly incur it. Here "the patience of the saints" is sustained in a "reign of terror" such as has never yet been.
Faith too is sustained in another way, namely, by the special consolation as to those who die as martyrs at this time: "And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, 'Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.'" That is clearly encouragement under peculiar circumstances. All who die in the Lord must be blessed at any time; but that only makes it plainer that the circumstances must be exceptional now which require such comfort to be so expressly provided for them. Something must have produced a question as to the blessedness of those that die at this time; and in this we have an incidental confirmation stronger because incidental — that the resurrection of the saints has already taken place. Were they still waiting to be raised, the blessedness of those who as martyrs join their company could scarcely be in doubt. The resurrection having taken place, and the hope of believers being now to enter alive into the kingdom of the Son of Man at His appearing, — as the Lord says of that time, "He that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved" (Matt. 24:13), — the question is necessarily raised. What shall be the portion of these martyrs, then, must not remain a question; and in the tenderness of divine love the answer is here explicitly given. Specially blessed are those who die from henceforth: they rest from their labors; they go to their reward. The Spirit seals this with a sweet confirming "yea" — so it is. Earth has only cast them out that heaven may receive them; they have suffered, therefore they shall reign with Christ. Thus accordingly we find in the twentieth chapter, that when the thrones are set and filled, those that have suffered under the beast are shown as rising from the dead to reign with the rest of those who reign with Him. Not the martyrs in general, but these of this special time are marked distinctly as finding acknowledgment and blessing in that "first resurrection," from which it might have seemed that they were shut out altogether.
It may help some to see how similar was the difficulty that had to be met for the Thessalonian saints, and which the apostle meets also with a special "word of the Lord" in his first epistle. They too were looking for the Lord, so that the language of their hearts was (with that of the apostle), "We who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord." They had been "turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for. His Son from heaven" and with a lively and expectant faith they waited.
But then what about those who were fallen asleep in Christ? It is evident that here is all their difficulty. He would not have them ignorant concerning those that were asleep, so as to be sorrowing for them, hopeless as to their share in the blessing of that day. Nay, those who remained would not go before these sleeping ones: they would rise first, and those who were alive would then be "caught up with them, to meet the Lord in the air." This for Christians now is thus the authoritative word of comfort. But the sufferers under the beast would not find this suffice for them; for them the old difficulty appears once more, and must be met with a new revelation.
How perfect and congruous in all its parts is this precious Word of God! And how plainly we have in what might seem even an obscure or strange expression — "blessed from henceforth" — a confirmation of the general interpretation of all this part of Revelation! The historical interpretation, however true, as a partial anticipatory fulfillment, fails here in finding any just solution.
The Harvest and the Vintage. (vv. 14-20.)
In the next vision the judgment falls. The Son of Man upon the cloud, the harvest, the treading of the winepress, are all familiar to us from other Scriptures, and in connection with the appearing of the Lord. We need have no doubt, therefore, as to what is before us here.
The "harvest" naturally turns us back to our Lord's parable, where wheat and tares represent the mingled aspect of the kingdom, the field of Christendom. "Tares" are not the fruit of the gospel, but the enemy's work, who sows not the truth of God, but an imitation of it. The tares are thus the children of the wicked one,' deniers of Christ, though professing Christians. The harvest brings the time of separation, and first the tares are gathered and bound in bundles for the burning, and along with this the wheat is gathered into the barn. In the interpretation afterward we have a fuller thing: the tares are cast into the fire, and the righteous shine forth as the sun in their Father's kingdom.
Here the general idea of harvest would be the same, though it does not follow that it will be a harvest of the same nature. In the harvest-time there are crops reaped of various character: the thought is of discriminative judgment, such as with the sheep and goats of Matt. 25. There is what is gathered in, as well as what is cast away, and hence the Son of Man is here as that. The vintage-judgment is pure wrath: the grapes are cast into the great wine-press of the wrath of God, and thus it is the angel out of the altar, who has power over the fire, at whose word it comes. The vine of the earth is a figure suitable to Israel as God's vine (Isa. 5), but apostate, yet cannot be confined to Israel, as is plain from the connection in which we find it elsewhere. But it represents still apostasy, and thus what we have seen to have its centre at Jerusalem, though involving Gentiles also far and near. Thus the city also outside of which the wine-press is trodden is Jerusalem, as the sixteen hundred furlongs is well known to be the length of Palestine. Blood flows up to the bits of the horses for that distance — of course, a figure, but a terrible one.
Both figures — the harvest and the vintage — are used in Joel, with reference to this time: "Proclaim ye this among the nations; prepare war: stir up the mighty men; let all the men of war draw near; let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong. Haste ye, and come, all ye nations round about, and gather yourselves together: hither cause Thy mighty ones to come down, O Lord! Let the nations bestir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat: for there will I sit to judge all the nations round about. Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe: come, tread ye, for the wine-press is full, the vats overflow; for their wickedness is great. Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. And the Lord shall roar from Zion, and utter His voice from, Jerusalem; and the heaven and the earth shall shake: but the Lord will be a refuge unto His people, and a stronghold to the children of Israel."
Thus comes the final blessing, and the picture upon which the eye rests at last is a very different one. "So shall ye know that I am the Lord your God, dwelling in Zion My holy mountain: then shall Jerusalem be holy, and there shall no strangers pass through her any more. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the mountains shall drop down sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the brooks of Judah shall flow with waters, and a fountain shall come forth of the house of the Lord and water the valley of Shittim. . . . And I will cleanse their blood that I have not cleansed: for the Lord dwelleth in Zion."