Sketches in the Apocalypse

Words of Help

The Seals Opened

When we come to consider for a moment the opening of the seals in chapter 6 it is hardly needful to remind the reader, who has attentively followed the two chapters preceding, that we enter into a wholly new scene, because it now becomes a matter of dealing in judgment with this world (1 Cor. 5:13). John has his place in heaven, where the Church is, together with the Old Testament saints, all represented by the “twenty-four elders” around the throne; and as yet, no distinction is made with reference to their varied positions in the future. The chapters 4 and 5 are all occupied with heaven, and the sealed roll or book is “in the right hand of Him that sat on the throne.” In chapter 5 the “Lamb” is introduced. He is seen “in the midst of the throne and is found to be the only One worthy to open the seals, and thus disclose what is still future.

We must ever bear in mind that the number of redeemed saints up to that time is absolutely complete. The Old Testament saints, with whom John the Baptist was counted, do not form a part of the “Bride,” as he himself was given to state prophetically (John 3:29). The Bride is composed alone of those who are sealed by the Holy Ghost, sent down on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and whom the Lord Himself will “raise” or “change” when He comes in the clouds. That is definitely explained in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18. In this first Epistle to the Corinthians, written a short time afterwards, the Apostle Paul calls it a “mystery” (chap. 15:49-54). Death will then be “swallowed up in victory.” So far, that special glory of Christ as “the first-begotten of the dead” will be complete (1 Cor. 15:20-23; Rev. 1:5). And the Lord will present His Bride to Himself “a glorious Church, without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:25-27).

But that in no way prevents others being present when this heavenly scene takes place. Many “blessed ones” will be “called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb,” as we read in Revelation 19:9. The saints of the Old Testament times will, no doubt, be found in that company, and also others who become objects of the sovereign grace of God during the period of judgment which will follow the removal of the Church, as we shall see presently; for God delights in mercy, and judgment is His “strange work” (Isa. 28:21-22).

From the moment that the saints are called to heaven, or rather taken thither by the blessed Lord Himself, uninterrupted worship goes on there to “Him that liveth for ever and ever” (chap. 4:10). The “living creatures” of Ezekiel’s vision, which have also the characteristic features of the “seraphim” (Isa. 6) are seen there, intimately associated with the throne of judgment, “in it and round about it” (Rev. 4:6). And the moment the Lamb is introduced, all, including the glorified saints, fall down before Him in worship. They all have harps of joy and vials of prayers agreeable to the divine presence, and they sing a new redemption song, to celebrate the infinite value of the precious blood which is the purchase-price of their eternal blessing. That had been also the case on earth, as soon as the name of the “Faithful Witness” is mentioned, in view of His “coming with clouds” to Him alone, Son of God and Son of man (John 5:22, 27; Rev. 1:5-7).

All that regards believers is “settled in heaven,” as the Word of God ever was and is (Psa. 119:89). But at length, after prolonged patience, the time has come to make evident and display divine rights in government over this earth, which a giddy and selfish world ever seeks to ignore and despise. Even at such a moment, there is, however, no haste; for there are purposes of grace to be unfolded with reference to this earth, in view of the establishment of the long promised kingdom in Israel, God’s ancient people. They are still “beloved,” though now rejected, in consequence of their rejection of Christ. They are not “cast away” for ever (Rom. 9:2-29). The Lamb is now about to set up His own kingdom, as promised, in their midst; but they will have to experience the persecution to which He Himself was subject here below, previously to the manifestation of His power on their behalf “in righteousness” (Isa. 9:6-7; Isa. 32:1, 15-17). We perceive that, when the fifth seal is opened; for it evidently refers to them (compare Rev. 12).

The subjoined extracts from the Synopsis (Vol. 5. pp. 523,524) may well find their place here, in reference to the “new song” of Rev. 5 to celebrate the Lamb: —

“What seemed His dishonour and rejection on earth was the ground of His worthiness to take the book. He who at all suffering and cost to Himself had glorified all that God was, is able and worthy to unfold the governmental dealing which sets it forth and is the display of His power not merely in Israel, but in the whole earth … He does not yet “come forth,” but His work is the worthy instrument, the divine motive, for the display of God’s power. The redemption song takes place in heaven, whence the judgment flows: what is to follow on earth now begins, when the seals are opened …”

The living creatures introduce successively what follows on the opening of the first four seals: first, imperial conquest; secondly, internecine wars; thirdly, famines; and then pestilence which affects “the fourth part of the earth.” The last summarises the “four sore judgments” spoken of by the prophet Ezekiel as about to fall upon Jerusalem at the time when the temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon (chap. 14:21).

We may notice here in passing, that in chapter 9:15, the “third part” of the remainder is mentioned. Always supposing that the same part of the earth is affected in the two cases, the actual number that perish in each of the visitations would be the same, though relatively the second would exceed the former one in violence, as is generally the case in excessive judgments of this nature, when the opportunity allowed for repentance is despised and disregarded (compare chap. 2:21).

It is thought that in all this part of the book, including chapters 7 to 9, the Roman earth is in question, as well as the mass of unbelieving Jews who are more or less protected by those in power there (compare chap. 9:4 with 7:3, the “seal in the forehead” being noticed in both cases). My own impression is that the whole of professing Christendom is included, and that would extend beyond the limits of the ancient Roman empire, especially on the northern and eastern sides. Besides this, the colonies in all parts of the world would naturally follow suit with the mother-countries, and the growing influence of Papal domination wherever Christianity has reached, seems to make this more than probable.

The opening of the fifth seal calls for special notice, inasmuch as we find here “under the altar, the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.” Here we are on familiar ground: their prayers are such as we find in the Psalms, which proves that their thoughts are inspired by that external relationship with God which characterises the Old Testament. They have Jewish hopes and expectations, knowing that Jehovah is a God of judgement as well as of knowledge, and by Him actions are weighed. Hannah states it in her prayer, which for the first time in scripture, introduces the “anointed” of the God of Israel (1 Sam. 2:1-10). Prophetically, it refers of course to Christ.

All this would confirm the thought already stated, that we are in presence of a Jewish remnant, amongst which God is working by His Spirit, when the Church’s testimony on earth is closed for ever; for the world, left as it will be then, without any testimony for God, is seen to be hastening on in infidelity to the judgments about to fall upon it. Have we not also the fulfilment of the Lord’s words to His disciples in Matthew 10:23, when, in one short verse at the close of His sketch of all service for Him during the time of His absence, he shows what will take place “in Israel,” after the Church is gone?

The martyred remnant participate in Messiah’s sufferings, as did the early disciples; and the Apostle Paul, who naturally had occasion to glory in being of the stock of Israel, felt, in writing his second epistle to Timothy, that such a portion must be his also (Phil. 3:3-5; 2 Tim. 4:6). Paul departed “to be with Christ,” but “the souls of those that are slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” are told to wait until others in like circumstances should also be put to death, during the last three and a half years of Satan’s power, displayed in his two instruments, the “beast” and the antichrist of chapter 13, who claim worship on pain of death for any refusal to obey them. Both companies are mentioned in chapters 20 verse 4.

The opening of the sixth seal brings a subversion of the order of created things, affecting the relations of the whole earth with the heavens, on which it is dependent, not only for light, but for the ordering of those times and seasons promised by God to Noah, on the occasion of the burnt-offering offered by him, on leaving the ark in order to re-people a renewed world. (Gen. 8:21-22). When this judgment takes place, both governors and their subjects think the final judgment had suddenly come about, and they flee to hide themselves if possible. Compare Isaiah 34:1-4; Matthew 24:29; Luke 23:30; and also Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Hosea 10:8.

Finally, there is a pause before the seventh seal is opened.

W. J. L. 1918

Sketches in the Apocalypse.


“Come” (Revelation 6).

It may seem somewhat a return to the subject of the last sketch (see page 13), but it is not easy to give in a limited space the many-sided features of this wonderful book, which our hearts should not merely be desiring, but expecting, from the opening words of the Spirit of God, “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.”

Those words, “at hand,” written more that eighteen hundred years ago, surely go to prove that it is not a matter of reckoning the whole period historically, as we are in the habit of counting “time”; but that all that is therein set down, is so traced out as to form in the believer’s heart that spirit of waiting upon the Lord, and looking to Him personally, which characterised the gospel preached by Paul to the Thessalonians.

They were turned to God from idols, to serve Him alone, “and to wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:9-10). It was to be the unvarying attitude of their souls, and to be so continually, throughout the history of Christendom. Consequently, we should expect to find moral features all though the book of Revelation which suit the reader at any particular time throughout the whole period treated of.

Besides this, it is a fact that special judgments have occurred continually from time to time, reminding people forcibly of what it will be, in increased intensity at the close of the present period, and more especially when every really converted soul shall have been removed from it, at the moment of the Lord’s coming in the cloud to raise the dead saints, and change the living ones, who shall together meet Him in the air (1 Thess. 4:15-18).

At the present day, real Christians are comparatively few and far between; but what will it be at the critical moment we are now contemplating in our review when, at the Lord’s coming just referred to, not a single saved soul will be left in the whole of this world? That is indeed the state of things when these judgments begin, in chapter 6. We ourselves are accustomed to deplore the presence of careless and often infidel preachers in Christian pulpits; but what is that compared to the time we are speaking of, when, if there should be any church-going at all, it will be for amusement only, and vast multitudes, if they give vent to their ideas, will boast that they have got rid of the Bible? As time goes on, such spirits, under the guidance of Satan, “the god of this world,” get blinded, and shamelessly bolder (2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Tim. 3:13). Is it surprising, then, that judgment should at last begin?

In the days of the emperor Diocletion, at the very beginning of the fourth century (A.D. 303), after half a century of comparative peace, the last of the “ten” persecutions began, and went on for ten years. He sought to get rid of all their literature, and destroy every copy of the scriptures, - at that time, of course, all written by hand. God did not allow it; and He will surely prevent it in the day that is coming. But we may certainly expect that the effort will be made just as the judgment is beginning at the opening of the seven-sealed roll. But let us not forget that the action which follows the opening of the seals is confided to the “four living creatures,” which we may describe by the familiar name of “cherubim.”

All through the Old Testament the cherubim never speak. In the book of Revelation they combine the character of the seraphim (see Isa. 6); this is a detail previously noticed. But let us for a moment trace their action. Their intervention at this time coincides with all previous history, proving that the judgment is administrative or providential. It began at Eden, where their flaming sword “turned every way” to prevent any access to “the tree of life,” when Adam was driven out of paradise (Gen. 3:24).

When the children of Israel left Egypt, and the tabernacle was made, their outstretched wings formed the throne, or seat, over the ark, in the most holy place. The tabernacle was ordered to be constructed by the people, and placed in the centre of their camp. Over it rested the “cloud” of God’s presence, during the forty years that His people sojourned in the “waste howling wilderness,” where He kept them “as the apple of His eye” (Deut. 32:10). Day by day He provided for all their needs. The people had no cares, no work to do, but simply to prepare as they liked their daily fresh provision called “angels’ food” and the “bread of heaven” (Ps. 78:21); for God ever delights in showing mercy.

When the kingdom was established in glory under Solomon’s extended rule, the position of the cherubim is changed. In the temple which he built they stand erect, and look outwards, their extended wings just touching and covering the whole breadth of the temple (2 Chron. 3:10-13). That attitude surely sets forth the character of God’s government for the time being, not only of the people, but over all the territory they occupied. It was a “kingdom” set up on earth, in a chosen place of extending ??? [ed?] blessing, in the land promised to Abraham. As usual, failure came in, and at last, after years of patience, final judgment fell, when both ark and temple disappeared, and the land was also given up to desolation. Jeremiah shows that the ark is not to be placed on earth (chap. 3:16). Jerusalem itself is to be called “Jehovah’s throne” (ver. 17). And the ark, in a new form, will be found in heaven, being “seen” there in “the temple of God” (Rev. 11:19).

Some other things need notice in passing. Through David’s repeated victories over the Syrians, the extent of the territory appropriated by the tribes of Israel, when they first divided it out, became very greatly increased toward the north, so that Solomon reigned over all the kings and kingdoms from “the river” (that is, the Euphrates) even to the border of Egypt (1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron. 9:26).* This agrees with God’s first promise to Joshua after Moses’ death (Joshua 1:4). Compare also God’s word to Abraham in Genesis 15:18. {*It is interesting at the present time to observe the progress of the British troops at both ends of this territory.}

After the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar, power over the whole earth was committed to him, and he himself had to learn that, after the warning given by Daniel. For seven years he lost his reason, and was practically transformed into a beast. On his recovery he had to write his own history, and dropped the title of king when he became a worshipper, in Daniel 4:33-37. A new [form] of the cherubim was at that time communicated to the prophet Ezekiel, himself a captive in Chaldea, who saw things from the point of view of God’s people, scattered as they then were, but still “beloved” in spite of their rejection, as Paul also testified later on in his history (Rom. 11:1-5). The “cherubim,” described in Ezekiel’s first chapter, were accompanied by “wheels” to run on the earth in a novel way, to show that both heaven and earth were under God’s directing and ruling hand—all judgment proceeding from Him, through the cherubim. They are found again, in chapters 9-11, executing it; and lastly, are seen to return, in the future promised day of glory which ushers in Christ’s millennial kingdom, in chapter 43.

This rapid review must suffice to show why the apocalyptic judgments proceed from the “four living creatures,” as the Lamb successively opens the seals. Each one in his turn says “Come,” and John records what he saw, as the result of the divine order.

The reader will notice that, in the official Revised Version, the words “and see” are in each case dropped. This is quite correct. The available early manuscripts are more or less confused, evidently because the true meaning was not understood.* In the third verse, where John’s “I saw” is also omitted, there is no authority for the addition at all. The living cherubic creatures give the governmental order, which is their regular duty, and the apostle simply records what he saw in consequence of the order given. It is the habitual character of the cherubim, as we have seen, all though Scripture, and most important, though very little understood. The whole passage becomes easy and natural to grasp when the words “and see” are left out. The judgments are providential, that is to say, that the effects observed on earth are the result of the unseen working and ordering in heaven above, where the twenty-four elders are enthroned also around the Lamb. {*See also “Lectures on the Revelation,” by W. Kelly, p. 108.}

Notwithstanding all, judgment is still God’s “strange work”; for the opening of the fifth seal shows nothing fresh to “come,” but is a blessed interruption to reveal the Lamb’s secret working in a few who love Him and suffer martyrdom (chap. 6:9-11).

1918, W.J.L.