The Revelation of John


Division 2. (Rev. 4 — 22.)

Things that come to pass after these. The salvation of Israel and the earth.

Subdivision 4. (Rev. 14.)

The earth-change at hand.

We have now a section which seems designed to put together in review the various acts of God in view of the change which is at hand, whether these be in blessing or in judgment. There is mercy, as ever, while yet the world is in its special trial, and evil is fully searched out and under the hand of God.

1. 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 if in answer to the challenge, the Lamb upon mount Zion, that is, upon David's seat; and as the beast-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, it was no more sought unto in the days of Saul, who, 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, "The Lord awoke as one out of sleep. … And He smote His adversaries backwards. 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. Here 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 up, indeed, above the hills. 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. With this method all will be familiar who are familiar with the Psalms.

But who are the 144,000 associated with the Lamb? Naturally, one would at once 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 is surely 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, save that we read of them as exempted from the power of the locusts afterwards. Here, if it is not directly affirmed that they 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 a mark they had as God's. This is manifestly accomplished by His name upon them. This open identification with Christ in the day of His rejection might seem to be just what would expose them to all the power of the enemy. Yet it is this 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 no safer place for us than that of necessary conflict under the Lord's banner; and the end is glory. Here they stand, then, 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 the 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 144,000 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 there 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 — that is, if the singers are primarily the 144,000, 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 fifth seal is opened, and those for whom they are bidden to wait — the sufferers under the beast afterward? two classes which will be seen as completing the ranks of the first resurrection in the twentieth chapter. Those here 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 the 144,000 here 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 indeed to meet the difficulty; 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 themselves to originate it.

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. 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 2:22). The names of the Lamb and of His Father are on the foreheads of these sealed ones.

2. We have now the earth-gospel, which we need not wonder to be in some sense a gospel of judgment. Thus the denunciative woe upon the beast-followers, as well as the announcement of the fall of Babylon, may enter into it, for these are the necessary clearing of the earth from the power of evil which oppresses it. The everlasting gospel is in terms accordant to this: "Fear God and give Him glory, for the hour of His judgment is come."

(1) It is the fore-gleam of the day that comes that the first vision of this chapter shows us but although the time is coming fast, we are first to see the harbingers of judgment, and then the judgment, before it can in fact arrive. Righteousness unheeded when it spoke in grace must speak in judgment, that the work of righteousness may be "peace, and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance forever." In this way it is that we come now to what seems to us, perhaps, who have one of so much higher character, a strange, sad gospel, and yet the everlasting one which an angel flying in mid-heaven preaches to the inhabitants of the earth. 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 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 preached 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 now. In fact, the gospel element, the 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 rapture of exultation does he break out as he cries, "O 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 fulness thereof; let the field exult, and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the woods 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 which has been sounding out all through Christianity, whether men have heard it or not. This, too, is 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 should crush the serpent's head. That is a gospel which has been ringing through the ages since, 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 to "return to righteousness." The rod is iron, but henceforth in the Shepherd's hand. Man's day is passed; 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 unto His own again? The angel-evangel is thus a claim for worship from all people, and to Him that cometh every knee shall bow.

We must not imagine that the "angel" here is necessarily this. God's way is to speak by human messengers, and He will doubtless do it at the time we are considering. Those brethren of the Lord whom He owns as such at the time when judgment separates the sheep from the goats, and by the conduct towards whom the condition of men is judged then, are doubtless these very preachers, who are Israelitish as suits the time, and as the "brethren" of the Lord speaks them to be. It is according to the words in Micah, where he speaks of "the remnant of His brethren" returning unto the children of Israel. The passage has been elsewhere examined.

(2) 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, the 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. All nations have drunk of her wine; therefore the nations are mad" (Jer. 51:7). 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 have seen 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.

(3) 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 in 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, he shall even drink of the wine of the fury of God which is mixed, unadulterated, in the cup of His wrath, 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 to the ages of ages, 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 cold 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 no one may unknowingly incur it. Here "the patience of the saints" is sustained during a "reign of terror" such as has never yet been.

3. 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 out of heaven saying, Write, Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth." That is plainly 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 who 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 joined their company could scarcely be in doubt; but 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. 24:14,) 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 with the Thessalonian saints, and which the apostle meets also with a special "word of the Lord" in the first epistle. They also 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 of blessing in 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 the authoritative word of comfort. But the sufferers under the beast would not find this sufficient 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 the precious word of God! and how plainly we have, instead of what might seem 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 fulfilment, fails here in finding any just solution.

4. In the next vision the judgment falls. The Son of man upon the cloud, the harvest, the treading of the wine-press, 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 the 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. First the tares are gathered and bound in bundles for the burning; but along with this, the wheat is gathered into the barn. In the interpretation afterwards 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; but it does not follow that it will be necessarily identical with that in the gospel. In fact, this could scarcely be. The wheat is, at the time which we are considering, already reaped in that case, and in the barn. The field is that sown in the generations passing, by the gospel; but the parable of the sheep and goats shows us that there will yet be discriminative judgment; thus a harvest, where that which is for God is gathered in, as well as what He cannot own cast away. The idea is general, and we do not seem able more to particularize. In what follows there is no further discrimination, but judgment pure and simple.

5. Thus, in the vintage, the grapes are cast wholly 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 now apostate. Yet it cannot be confined to Israel, as is plain from the connection in which we find it elsewhere, but it represents in any case an apostasy, and thus what we have seen to have its centre at Jerusalem, though involving Gentiles also, far and near. Thus the city, outside of which the wine-press is trodden, is Jerusalem, as the 1600 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 upon Zion and utter His voice upon 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."