J. N. Darby.
(Notes and Comments Vol. 1.)
Ordinary prophecy gives the application of power to a certain path, and against certain conduct, approved and disapproved respectively of God; it is never the statement of mere facts - those facts are the introduction of God's power sanctioning, and judging certain things, and introducing Christ's glory. But a symbol gives the morally characterised existence of the thing itself.
The character of symbolical prophecy is different, and has special instruction in this respect, that, from the nature of it, it gives the full moral characteristics which designate, in God's eyes, the thing spoken of.
In all prophecy, principles then are involved, but, besides this, facts which effectuate God's judgment on them, and His estimate of them, for neither does He ever so act, till they are ripe; hence also, if we seize the moral bearing or language of symbols, we get a large introduction into the mind and purpose of God.
A symbol is more than a figure, though in its nature it is figurative.
A figure is simply the use of some known fact or object in nature, or some material act, to represent, and present sensibly, what is moral or mental. It runs into every part of language, and is used unconsciously, e.g., he drew a lovely picture of virtue - "drawing a lovely picture" is a mere figure, at once intelligible, and hardly felt to be a figure and so of almost every sentence we use, which is not simply speaking of material things - "he dragged me into an argument" - "hammered away at his subject."
A symbol goes further; it does borrow images, but it uses them, not merely to render a mental thought more sensible by material objects, but to create a positive object of thought, often combining various circumstances, and characteristics, to give the moral idea of the object whose existence it thus reveals characteristically and as a whole, so that it may be recognised by these characteristics. The mere figurative speech thus takes some sensible fact, as the vivid expression of what is mentally known, or communicated; the symbol takes any known elements or objects to create a new idea - to express a new fact.
The symbol, however, is not always a combination of characteristic elements; it may take an object which is in relationship with others to represent what is in an analogous one - as the Sun, for supreme authority. In such cases, indeed in all cases, the main point is, to seize the abstract idea meant to be conveyed; hence also the object used as symbol by itself, may be also spoken of in positive relationship with another, and the relationship is the point of the symbol, and then we must not confound it with the object taken by itself.
254 Let me adduce some instances to illustrate what I have just said: In the ten horned beast we have a combination of elements - body - heads - horns. Besides as a beast, what is ravenous is depicted, what is not intelligent as a man, is not in submission to, and in relationship with God, but acting by its own will and power. In a great tree - exaltation and power in the earth, and therewith also competency to protect, and to be a resource for others; or again in the Sun - as indicating supremacy, or supreme authority - we have examples of the second class spoken of. Fowls of the air picking up seed and devouring it, are not the same as fowls seeking shelter under the branches of a great tree, because the idea is not being fowls, but devouring and taking away, of which fowls were a natural instrument in such case; in the other the thought was not fowls either, but the power of the tree to shelter and protect, and the abstract intention of the image is that which we must look to.
Some further details will render these preliminary remarks still clearer, and afford a safeguard against the precipitate use of symbols. When their use is well understood, they will be found to be a regular language, requiring indeed patience, and the power of analysis and abstraction to learn the leading idea of each term, but still, when that is learned, affording considerable assistance in the interpretation of those parts of Scripture in which they are employed.
First then, the same symbol may be used for several objects, and such as are opposed to each other in their historical existence, provided the abstract idea represented by the symbol be maintained.
The Sun may be, and is used of Christ as Supreme in righteousness, or of the supreme power in the dominion of the beast; in either, it is supreme power - in the one case, of righteousness, in the other, of oppression and bitter persecution. The clothing with the Sun in Revelation 12, is still with supreme authority; "the moon under her feet" (of the woman) is merely the reflected system of law and ordinances, entirely put down and of no worth - in fact, the state of Israel under the old covenant. The new moon, or the blowing of the trumpet in the new moon, is the return of Israel to light and honour after disappearing from view; it is no longer the reflective character in contrast with the sun, but re-appearance which is the leading idea. Taken simply as the moon, it is a secondary, and not the supreme glory in the place of authority, with the sense perhaps of dependence on another. When sun, moon and stars are found together, all in the ruling and conspicuous place of importance are embraced - what stands in a conspicuous place, a place of display and rule.
255 I will examine now various symbols which occur to me.
Sun - Supreme rule as ordained of God, in blessing or judgment. "The Sun of righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings" (Mal. 4:1, 2), but it is the time of judgment. In the Apocalypse we have Jerusalem, clothed with the Sun - Jerusalem, or the Jewish people clothed with supreme authority - the old reflection and image of it in the old covenant, under her feet; so, chapter 16:8, it is the supreme power in the earth of the beast. The source of the image is evident - the sun set supreme in the heavens. The full antitype will be when Christ, the Sun of righteousness, takes to Him His great power and reigns, Joel 2:10, quoted in Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, Acts 2, Revelation 6:12, and chapter 8:12 - in all these the idea is supreme rule in the sphere spoken of.
The Sun, then, is supreme authority, set up over the earth.
The Moon, a reflected and subordinate vessel, to represent governmental authority on the earth.
The Stars, smaller independent authorities - vessels of light and power.
The Sea and great waters, masses of people, viewed as such, that is, taken in the mass as unformed and undirected.
Rivers are portions of population, to which a given form and direction has been given. It implies often some principle which gives it its character, or produces national consistency, or a nation; only that when used in its highest sense, it is more connected with the influences which flow from God's presence - the refreshment with which He blesses the earth, or even the heavenly city - because a perennial stream, in the East, is a chiefest blessing. As the rivers, in general, are mere general influences which animate and combine men, and give, as a motive, their impulse to them, so this is God's influence to refresh, and make glad His people.
256 Water, when used by itself, is the Word in the power of the Spirit of God, but it is still the divine source of truth and grace. That which would have been an influence, flowing down from what was near God, to carry diffused blessing and refreshment from Him in all quarters, became, in fallen man, after Babel's judgment, local influences which combined men in human passions and energies. Water, in itself, is looked at also as cleansing, but, in this character flows to us only through the death of Christ - death to sin is the only true cleansing - but this requires more accurate analysis.
In the use of water, as a symbol, we must distinguish the element itself, and divers objects physically composed of it where its physical condition is not the symbolic use. In itself, it is used in a double way, as cleansing and refreshing, this is quite natural from its use - we drink of water, and wash with water - with both the Word is connected, as it vivifies and cleanses, we are "born of water" and "washed with water" - but "born of water" is intimately connected with cleansing, but it is used for refreshing and drinking.
Where we find "great waters," "many waters," the idea is wholly different - it is not applied to us internally or externally; it is a mighty unformed mass, seen often in tumultuous motion, and is used for masses of people, as such, i.e., not characterised by particular forms or institutions.
Living water is fresh and clear - it is refreshment in the power of the Spirit, whether springing up in us into eternal life, or flowing from us. The next use of it is in the form of rivers. Still I think here we must distinguish the cases where the main idea is refreshment, and the river is merely its perennial and abundant character, and where "river" is the main idea. Thus, in "a pure river of water of life," the main idea is "water of life"; it flowed from the throne of God and the Lamb. "Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water" - this, whether finally in the heavenly city as a symbol, or on earth out of Jerusalem, gives the idea of a blessed influence proceeding from God. It leads up to one of an inferior character, but analogous - that Eden was a water-shed, or plateau of water sources, and thence went off in four streams for the refreshing and blessing of the country below it; this, though they may remain physically, has been ruined, and now rivers are from the source and power of man, however Providence may order it. "My river is my own," says Pharaoh - the king of Assyria was to "overflow all his banks and reach to the neck" - thus rivers came to mean symbolically, nations, armies of people under certain direction or influence, flowing onward actively in a given direction, as, "Whose land the rivers have spoiled." It is still the outflow of active principles, but not of God; the ultimate abstract idea is the same. I have been fuller here, however, because it is the case the most difficult to separate from its adjuncts in its various applications.
257 A great tree is exalted power and greatness in the earth.
Green grass is general prosperity.
A mountain is the established seat of authority.
Hills are naturally used in a smaller sense, only of inferior power.
A fig tree is man under divine culture, and hence specially Israel, in whom this was displayed.
Vine, and vineyard is the plant of God's planting, and what He has formed religiously, and ecclesiastically; hence, first Israel, then Christ Himself, always of course on earth; lastly, corrupt and apostate, still on earth, and then finally of it, though under a religious or ecclesiastical form.
The Cherubim, I believe to be judicial power; after the garden of Eden, they became the throne - in the tabernacle, regarding the law or covenant - in Ezekiel providential government and judgment - in Revelation 4 they are still the attributes on which the throne is founded, stability, strength, rapidity of judgment, intelligence. But they also refer to the creation; they are the heads of creation on earth - government also is on earth, and refers to this creation. But to the Cherubim in Revelation 4 is added the characteristics of the Seraphim, because judgment was not only governmental, but in view of the revelation of God, and final according to what He is. The vessels and instruments of His power are no part of the symbol.
As regards the tabernacle - Brass, is judgment of evil according to the responsibility of man - Gold, according to what is fit for the presence of God - Silver, I apprehend to be the faithfulness, and stability of God's purpose. The court and tabernacle figured the heavens - the most holy, Christ Himself, as we know by the rending of the veil. God dwelt in Him, but we also are His house. The common thought is, the dwelling place of God.
258 When we come to glass, it is purity - not as applied to cleanse like water, but that in and on which we walk, where no defilement can be contracted. We have it mingled with fire, when purity as an unchangeable standing is attained, through judicial chastenings also; it is gold transparent as glass (Rev. 21:21) when divine righteousness and perfect holiness are united in our state and all we are conversant with. It may be remarked that there was no gold in the veil - there was in the Ephod and breastplate. The veil was the flesh that hid, though divinely, what was within. The Ephod and breastplate figured His whole Person in exercise, though a man in grace.
When fire is added to brass, it gives the searching power of judgment, as the full trial of everything.
White, referred to robes, is blamelessness - pure humanity to which nothing could lie reproached.
A horse is the spirit of power from God, gone forth to execute His purpose in judgment - whatever the instrument.
A white horse is imperial triumph and victory; the other colours give the character of the intervention of God.
Horn is the expression of power, and habitually in a kingdom, and so in a king, but in a king as having the power of the kingdom concentred in him, not the king personally save so far as that is the case.
Heads, on the other hand, are forms of government.
Wings, are rapidity of execution, when referred to flight. They are also used for protecting power, when shadowing any under them, from the familiar image of the hen.
The earth is the revealed scene of God's dealings - hence, often more immediately connected with the land (the same word) of Palestine.
An earthquake, a violent disturbance of the order and quiet of the ordered earth.
The darkening of the Sun, the supreme authority over the earth losing its ordering power - black as sackcloth of hair, the same, only stronger, and with the idea of trouble, and extinction as a guiding, governing light.
The moon into blood, subordinate and derivative power violently losing its native character.
259 Stars of heaven falling on the earth, smaller local powers losing all their lustre and authority.
Heaven rolled as a scroll, is the whole seat and place of authority subverted; and so of Mountains and Islands, the stable seats of authority subverted, and what was ordered, and rose above the vague mass of peoples, removed.
Colours are symbolical; blue, purple, scarlet - heavenly, royal, and glorious; fine twined linen, purity of nature.
Times - seven, completeness in spiritual things, and what is directly established of God; twelve, perfection, according to God, in human institution and order; forty seems to have a meaning, but it is not so clear to me.
Dragon - is open, idolatrous rejection of the Gospel of Christ by Satan's actual power.
Beast - is the civil associate glory, and assumed power of the Roman empire under whatever form.
False prophet - is the concentration, in moral iniquity, of the influence of what was the second beast, or hierarchical energy of spiritual deception. No doubt in Revelation 16 the beast is in its last form, but it is just in equivalent of this name and character of beast that the Spirit acts; hence also the second beast, when it speaks, though having the lamb's form of power, has the voice and utterance of the dragon, as above noticed, for such is the force, though not the form, of the second beast.