Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE VISION OF THE SEALS.—The relation of Christianity to great universal evils. The extinction of war, disease, death, persecution will not be immediate; the mission of Christianity is not to abolish them at once and by compulsion, but to undermine them; for her work is not coercion, but conviction, and is primarily to individuals, and only secondarily and indirectly to nations.
It is at this chapter that our most difficult work commences. We now enter upon the vexed sea of multitudinous interpretations. In the Introduction will be found a brief account of the principal schools of apocalyptic interpretation. It will be sufficient here to indicate the general view which appears the most simple and freest from difficulties. The seals which are opened by the Lamb seem to speak a double message. To the world they say, “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” To the Church they say, “In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” There are two lines of thought in the Bible, and these give rise to two apparently contradictory sets of pictures. There are the pictures of what would be the state of the world were the principles of Christ fully and universally accepted; and there are the pictures of the world as it will be because men do not fully accept them. The first set are the ideal, and include the abolition of war, social injustice, poverty, when the golden age and reign of righteousness shall dawn. When, however, we speak of this as ideal, we do not imply that it is visionary; it is the sober statement of what would actually take place were the rule of Christ admitted in the hearts and lives of men, and what will take place whenever they do so. But between this grand possibility and its realisation stands the wayward, and tortuous, and weakened human will, which either rejects or fatally but half adopts the teachings of God. This will of man, seen in a world which is directly hostile to Christ, and in a Church which is but half faithful to him, must be convinced ere the true ideal of Christ shall be attained, and the fulness of His kingdom made manifest. Thus the ideal pictures are postponed, and the world, which might have been saved by love speaking in gentleness, must be saved by love speaking so as by fire. Now in the earlier Christian times the hope of an ideal kingdom, soon to be realised in the immediate establishment of Christ’s kingdom, was very strong. The first disciples yearned to see it immediately set up. “Wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom?” The golden light of hope lingered long in their minds; they lived in the memory of those prophecies which foretold the cessation of war, sorrow, pain, and death. They thought, now that Christ had come, the Messianic kingdom in its utter gladness must immediately appear. They forgot the Prince’s visit to the far country; they forgot the citizens who hated Him, and rejected His rule; they forgot the session at God’s right hand till His enemies were made His footstool. They thought the day of the Lord, in the sense of the perfecting of His reign, was at hand; they forgot that the Heavenly Bridegroom must gird His sword upon His thigh, and that His arrows must be sharp in the heart of the King’s enemies (Psalm 45:3; Psalm 45:5). The vision of these seven seals is the repetition of the warning against such forgetfulness. The ideal Kingdom might come if mankind would receive it, but it must be established by conviction, not by coercion; and so the actual history of the growth of the Kingdom would be different from the ideal; the Church, like her Master, must be made perfect through sufferings; where He was, His servant must be; through much tribulation the Kingdom must be entered. The seals unfold, then, the general aspects of the world’s history after Christ’s ascension. Certain features would continue; war, famine, disease, death would remain. They might, indeed, have been abolished had Christ’s own received Him; but as it was, the face of the world’s will being in opposition to God’s will opposed the manifestation of the peaceful Kingdom. Thus the scenes which the seals unfold are but the pictorial statement of Christ’s own utterances in Matthew 24:6-7, “Ye shall hear of wars; there shall be famines and pestilences.” It will be seen, then, that, the seals tell the seer that these troubles will exist till the times of the end. The Church through him is warned to prepare for her mission of suffering; and in this way the vision stretches on till the close of earth’s history.
But this is not all. The visions of the book may have preliminary applications, because the principles on which they are constructed are eternal ones. Our Lord’s own language in Matthew 24 is our guarantee that we may look for such preliminary applications. The story of the overthrow of many a nation presents these features of war, famine, misery, convulsion. The fall of Jerusalem, as well as that of the Roman empire, was preceded by such. On this principle, other interpretations of the vision have a truth in them, as long as they are confined to broad, general principles; the mischievous affection for trivial details has been the bane of more than one school of interpreters.
It is perhaps worthy of notice that these seals are not to be regarded as being fulfilled one after another: in point of fact, the horseman of war and the horseman of pestilence have often ridden together. Yet it is true that there is a tendency in one to produce the other; war does lead to famine, famine does produce pestilence. There is, perhaps, also an application of these seals to the history of the Church. Her first era is that of purity and conquest; her next is that of controversy—the war of opinions; the age of controversy gives rise to the age of spiritual scarcity, for men intent upon controversy forget the true Bread, which came down from heaven, and a famine of the word of God succeeds; and out of this there emerges the pale horse of spiritual death, the parody of the victorious rider—the form of godliness without the power, the age of irreligious ritualism: the hidden ones of Christ may then be revealed, crying “How long?” and finally the age of revolution comes to overthrow the old order and give birth to the new.
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.(1) And I saw when the Lamb (the diminutive form of Lamb is still used) . . .—The words “and see” are doubtful. They are found in some MSS. and omitted in others: the authority for their omission and for their retention is about equally divided. Under these circumstances we may fairly be guided by the context. To whom is the summons addressed? Who is bidden to come? If it was taken to be addressed to the seer, we can understand why some copyist should add the words “and see.” But are they addressed to the seer? It seems difficult to see the purpose of such a command. He was near already. He had seen the Lamb opening the seal. There was no object in his drawing near. Are the words, then, addressed, as Alford supposes, to Christ? It is difficult to believe that the living creature would thus cry to the Lamb, who was opening the scroll. The simplest way of answering the question is to ask another: Who did come in obedience to the voice? There is but one answer—the horseman. The living beings cry “Come,” and their cry is responded to by the appearance of the several riders. What is the spiritual meaning of this? The living beings represent, as we have seen, animated nature—that nature and creation of God which groans and travails in pain, waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God. These summon the emblems of war and pestilence to come on the scene, for these things must needs be, and through these lies the way for the final coming of God’s Christ, for whom creation longs. They bid the pains and troubles come, because they recognise them as the precursors of creation’s true King. Thus their voice has in it an undertone which sighs for the advent of the Prince of Peace, who is to come.
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.(2) Conquering, and to conquer.—Better, conquering, and that he might conquer. One version has, “and he conquered.” All commentators seem to be agreed that this rider represents victory. The emblems —the crown and white horse—are obviously those of victory. The crown (stephanos) is the crown of triumph. The horses used in Roman triumphs were white. On the white horse of triumph the crowned rider goes forth conquering, and that he might conquer. But who or what is here represented? Some take it to be a mere emblem of conquest, or victory, as the next rider represents war. There is then a harmony of interpretation: the horsemen reveal to the seer that the after-history will be marked by conquests, wars, famines, pestilences. The description, however, seems to demand something more: the expression, “that he might conquer,” carries our thoughts beyond a mere transient conqueror. The vision, moreover, was surely designed to convey an assured happy feeling to the mind of the seer. No picture of mere Roman conquests or world-victory would have conveyed this. Is not the vision the reflex of the hopes of early Christian thought? It is the symbol of Christian victory. It was thus their hopes saw Christ: though ascended He went forth in spiritual power conquering. They were right in their faith, and wrong in their expectation. Right in their faith: He went forth conquering, and He would conquer. Wrong in their expectation: the visions of war, famine, death must intervene. It was through these that the conqueror would be proved more than conqueror. It is, perhaps, significant of this intervening period of trouble and suffering that the rider is armed with a bow. The arrows of His judgments (war, famine) would be sharp among those who refused the sword of His word. For those who will not turn He hath bent His bow and made it ready. His arrows are ordained against the persecutors.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.(3, 4) And when he had opened . . .—Better, And when he opened the second seal, I heard the second living being, saying, Come. And there came forth another horse, red; and to him that sat on him was given to take peace from the earth, and that they (i.e., the inhabitants of the earth) shall kill one another, and there was given to him a great sword. This seal is the distinct and unmistakable declaration to the Church that they must look for wars, even after the Prince of Peace has come. The advent of the highest good does not work peace, but only because the hindrance is in man. Man’s resistance to good turns the gospel of peace into an occasion for the sword. So our Lord declares, “I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The reign of peace, the beating of swords into ploughshares, is not yet. The vision may help to fix the Christian position about war. It is to be expected; it is an evil, but often an inevitable evil. Those who take part in war are not condemned: those who occasion offences are. It is as much a mistake to condemn soldiering as a profession as it is to deny that Christianity aims at the suppression of war. She admits the soldier to be a soldier of Christ, even while she keeps before her the ideal age when nations shall learn war no more. We expect wars, even while we believe that the day will come when war will be reckoned as absurd as duelling is now. The vision says, “It must needs be that wars will come;” and war, even when roused by the passions of men, is a judgment of God, for God’s judgments are mostly formed out of man’s vices. The seal puts in pictorial form the warning of Christ that wars and rumours of wars would be heard of. How true the warning the after history shows—wars in the empire, wars among nations, controversies, and often fratricidal wars in the Church of Christ.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.(5, 6) When He had opened.—Better, When he opened. The words “and see” are to be omitted here, as in the other seals. And I saw, and behold a horse, black, and he that sat on him having a balance in his hand. And I heard as it were a voice in the midst of the four living beings, saying, A choenix of wheat for a denarius (penny), and three choenixes of barley for a denarius (penny), and the oil and the wine do thou not hurt. “Balance:” There is scarcely a doubt that a balance, or pair of scales, is intended (the Greek word also means a yoke); but the whole imagery of the seal harmonises with the balance, and the passage from Ezekiel (Ezekiel 45:10), cited by Alford, in which there is a “righteous balance” (the LXX. using the same Greek word as here) seems conclusive. It is the emblem of scarcity: food is not weighed out thus in times of abundance. (Comp. Ezekiel 4:16, “Behold I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem, and they shall eat bread by weight and with care.”) The choenix (“measure” in English version) was the amount of food sufficient to support a man for a day. “A choenix is the daily maintenance” (Suidas, quoted by Alford). The denarius (“penny” of English version, here and in Matthew 18:28, and Mark 12:37) amounted to between sixpence and sevenpence of our money, and was the usual daily pay of the labourer, and of the soldier. (See especially Note on Matthew 20:2.) It is difficult to speak of this as other than terribly high prices for food. The whole of a man’s pay goes for food, and even the coarser bread is so expensive that it takes a whole day’s wages to supply food for three adults. It has been thought that the voice calls to the rider to check his devastations, lest the growing famine should exterminate the whole human race. This may be, but the check is at a point which has already wrought the highest misery. The extent of the misery may be imagined by imagining what wretchedness would be entailed were a man obliged to pay three or four shillings for bread sufficient to keep him nourished for a day. Or we may measure it by the estimate of the disciples (Mark 6:37) that two hundred pennyworth of bread would give a short meal to upwards of five thousand people. At the price in this seal, the cost of bread would have so risen that the two hundred pennyworth of bread would not suffice to feed one thousand. But what is meant by the words, “the oil and wine do not thou hurt”? They were not, like the bread, necessary to life, but among its luxuries and superfluities. There is a kind of irony in times of straitness, when the necessaries are scarcely to be had, and the luxuries remain comparatively low in price. The splendours and comforts of life are held cheap, when hunger is showing that the life is more than the dainty meat, and the body than raiment. The seal then tells the seer that in the ages the Church of Christ must expect to see famines and distress in the world, and luxuries abounding in the midst of straitness. Is it not true that the contrast, which is so ugly, between pampered opulence and indolent, pauperism, is the result of the prevalence of world-principles? Wealth, self-indulgent and heartless, and poverty, reckless and self-willed, are sure tokens that the golden rule of Christ is not understood and obeyed. There is a similar experience in the history of the Church. The red horse of controversy is followed by the black horse of spiritual starvation. In the heat of polemical pride and passion for theological conquest is developed that love of barren dogmatics which forgets the milk of the word and the bread of life, which are the needed food of souls.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.(7, 8) The fourth seal.—And when He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living being, saying, Come. And I saw, and behold, a horse, pallid (or, livid), and he that sat upon him his name was Death, and Hades was following with him; and there was given to them power over the fourth part of the earth to kill with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth. The colour pallid, or livid, is that deadly greenish hue, which is the unmistakable token of the approach of death. The rider is Death—not a particular form of death, but Death himself. Attending him, ready to gather up the slain, is Hades. The fourth seal is the darkest and most terrible. Single forms of death (war and famine) were revealed in the earlier seals; now the great King of Terrors himself appears, and in his hand are gathered all forms of death—war, famine, pestilence (for the second time the word “death” is used: it must be taken in a subordinate sense, as a particular form of death, such as plague, or pestilence; we may compare the use of the word “death” thus applied to some special disease, in the case of The Death, or Black Death), and wild beasts. These forms of death correspond with God’s four sore judgments—the sword, and famine, and pestilence, and the noisome beasts of Ezekiel 14:21. The seal, therefore, gathers up into one all the awfulness of the past seals. It is the central seal, and it is the darkest. It is the midnight of sorrows, where all seems given up to the sovereignty of death. The middle things of life are often dark. Midway between the wicket-gate and golden city Bunyan placed his valley of the shadow of death, following the hint of the Psalmist, who placed it midway between the pasture and the house of the Lord (Psalms 23). Dante, perhaps working from the same hint, found his obscure wood and wanderings midway along the road of life:—
“In the midway of this our mortal life
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray.”
The darkest periods of the Church’s history were those we call the Middle Ages. By this, however, it is not meant that there is any chronological signification in the seal. The vision deepens in its central scene, like the horror of darkness in the dream of Abraham. The history of the Church has not unfrequently presented a sort of parallel. The age which follows the ages of barren dogmatism and of spiritual starvation is often an age of sham spiritual life. The pale horse of death is the parody of the white horse of victory: the form of godliness remains, the power is gone.
And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:(9-11) The fifth seal differs from the four earlier seals. It is not introduced by the voice of the living beings, and the cry “Come.” The voice which is now heard is not the cry of the groaning world, but of the oppressed and troubled Church. In the fourth seal the climax of world-sorrow seemed to be reached in the accumulation of war, famine, pestilence, and noisome beasts. It declared to the evangelist that there were evils which would continue and even increase in the world. “Ye shall hear of wars; nation shall rise against nation.” Social troubles, war, poverty, and privation would still exist; religious troubles, evil men and seducers would wax worse and worse. Worldly policy, selfishness, and the untamed passions of mankind would still trouble humanity. Then if such troubles and disorders remain, what has the Church been doing? Where is the promise of that early vision of victory? The answer is given in the fifth seal. The Church has been following her Lord. As the vision of Bethlehem and the angel-song of “peace on earth” passed, and made way for the agony of Gethsemane, the cross of Calvary, and the cry “My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” so the glowing dream of a quick conquest over all evil passes away, and the picture of an agonising, persecuted Church takes its place, and the voice of its anguish is heard, “How long, O Lord!” The Church has her Bethlehem, her Nazareth, her Gethsemane, her Calvary, her Easter morn; for Christ said, “Where I am there shall also My servant be” (John 12:26). The seals, then, are not merely visions of war, famine, &c., they are the tokens that the victory of Christ’s Church must, like her Lord’s, be a victory through apparent failure and certain death. The four seals proclaim her apparent failure; she has not brought peace and social and political harmony to the world. The fifth seal shows her suffering, the witness of the servants of Christ has been rejected; in the world they have tribulation (John 16:33).
(9) I saw under the altar . . .—Read, when He opened, and, instead of “were slain,” &c., had been slain because of the Word of God, and (because of) the testimony which they held. The seal indicates that the mission of the Christian Church can only be carried out in suffering. An altar is seen, and at its foot tokens of the martyrs who had laid down their lives upon it. The word “souls” is to be taken as the equivalent of “lives”; the vision tells that their lives had been sacrificed. The blood of the victims was in the temple service poured out at the foot of the altar. St. Paul makes use of the same imagery—“I am now ready to be poured out” (“offered” in English version). In union with Christ Christians are called upon to suffer with Him, even to carry on to its great end the work of Christ in the world, and so fill up that which is lacking of the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24). The word “souls” has been made a resting-place for an argument respecting the intermediate state. There is no ground for this: it is quite beside the object of the seal, which simply exhibits the sufferings of Christ’s people as the necessary accompaniment of the progress of the gospel. These sufferings are because of the Word of God and the testimony which they held. It was because of the Word of God and the testimony that the sacred seer himself suffered (Revelation 1:9). The words here remind us that the same issue which St. John fought, the suffering ones of after ages would be fighting. Their witness and his was the God-man; to this testimony they clung. They were not ashamed of Christ, or of His words, and they suffered for their courage and fidelity.
And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?(10) How long . . .?—Better. Until when. O Master (the word is the correlative of “servant,” see Revelation 6:10) the Holy and True, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood from (on) those who dwell on the earth? By a dramatic figure the persecuted and slain ones are represented as crying for retribution on their oppressors. It is not the Christians themselves (Luke 23:34; and Acts 7:60) who cry for vengeance, any more than it was Abel himself who cried from the ground to God: it was the blood of Abel (Genesis 4:10), the earth disclosed her blood, and refused to cover her slain. The forgotten or ignored wrongs of generations come forth from oblivion and cry for vengeance. It is a poetical description, but it is not fiction. The righteous blood shed does fall upon the world in retribution: the laws of God avenge themselves, though the victims do not live to behold the reward of the ungodly. On the epithets Holy and True, see Notes on Revelation 3:7.
And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.(11) And white robes were given . . .—The victims, however, are not forgotten. There was given to them (each) a white robe. The white robes, the glistening apparel of the saints (comp. Revelation 3:4-5), shall be theirs; each shall receive it. They are robes of righteousness (Revelation 19:8); they are robes of honour (Revelation 4:4), for those who wear them are like God, seeing Him as He is, reflecting His image; they are acknowledged to be His, as they have acknowledged Him to be their God. Persecuted on earth, they are honoured in heaven. There is also a sense in which a white robe is given to them in the eyes of men: those whose names have been cast out as evil have been honoured by a repentant posterity with the robe of tardy praise; after-generations garnish the sepulchres of the righteous whom their fathers slew. The excommunicated in one age are often the canonised of the next, for the dull world learns slowly, and its purest honours are posthumous. But however this may be, for the suffering saints there is the heavenly robe and the heavenly rest.
It was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow- servants also and their brethren, that should be killed (better, who are to be slain) as they were, should be fulfilled (or, shall have fulfilled their course).—They are to “rest.” This does not mean that they are to cease their cry for vengeance, for the saints have never cried for this; but they are to rest, as the souls of the faithful after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, in joy and felicity. But this rest is yet a waiting for a little while till fellow-servants and fellow-sufferers have achieved their work also. To every disciple a work is given in service and suffering, and till these have borne their witness and fulfilled their course (comp. 2Timothy 4:7-8, and Acts 13:25) the departed must wait for their perfect consummation and bliss both in body and soul.
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;(12-17) The sixth seal.—The seals follow the lines laid down by our Lord in Matthew 24. There He tells His disciples that wars (Revelation 6:6), famines and pestilences (Revelation 6:7), and persecutions (Revelation 6:9) are to be expected; these are necessary features in the history of the world. But these features are described by our Master as preliminary to His Coming and the end of the world (Matthew 24:3), and that when these had wrought their work then the Coming of the Son of Man would take place (Matthew 24:29-31). With this guide, it is impossible for us to deny that the opening of this sixth seal has reference to the Coming of the Son of Man, and finds its final and ultimate fulfilment in the day when He will come to gather His elect from the four winds. But it is not to be forgotten that our Lord wished us to regard certain great culminating epochs as in a secondary sense His advents. The eagles which swept down upon the carcase of any corrupt nationality were proofs of His reign and true shadows of His coming. The features indicated in the seals have a sequence which has been reproduced in the history of nations and churches. The promise of good; the breaking forth of the spirit of violence; the time of social misery, want, disease; the oppression of the good; revolution— these have repeated themselves in Jewish, Roman, French, and other histories; and the prophecy is not exhausted yet.
(12-14) And I beheld . . .—Better, And I saw when He opened the sixth seal, and (omit “lo!”) a great shaking took place, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon all became as blood, and the stars of the heaven fell to the earth, as a fig-tree casts its winter figs when shaken by a great wind, and the heaven departed like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. It is well to keep in mind the parallel imagery of the Old Testament. The shaking (“earthquake” is hardly an adequate rendering, as the shaking extends to heaven as well as earth) was spoken of by Haggai: “Yet once for all” (not “once more,” as in the English version) “shake I not the earth only, but also the heavens. And this word ‘Once for all’ signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken” (Haggai 2:6, and Hebrews 12:26-27). Sun black as sackcloth: Joel has a similar thought —“the sun shall be turned into darkness” (Joel 2:30-31); and Isaiah,‘‘ I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering” (Isaiah 1:3). The moon as blood is repeated from Joel 2:30-31. The falling of the stars of heaven has its parallel in Isaiah 34:3-4, “All the host of heaven shall be dissolved.” As a fig-tree is an echo of Isaiah 34:4. It will be seen by these passages how closely the writer of the Apocalypse has kept to Old Testament imagery; and that events, such as great calamities, changes, and revolutions in the world’s history, are described by emblems similar to those used here. St. Peter, for example, illustrates the great spiritual revolution of the Day of Pentecost by the passage from Joel, “The sun turned into darkness and the moon into blood.” Hence it seems right to regard the language here as figurative, and to bear in mind that, though its fullest application belongs to the final advent, there may be many anticipatory advents. The judgment is often rehearsed before the day of judgment; the ages of oppression end in a day of catastrophe and confusion in which the righteous laws of a righteous King avenge themselves on the law breakers; the old lights and landmarks are for a time obliterated, and feeble, but pretentious, religionists are swept off as autumn figs from the fig-tree, and the proud and mighty are dismayed; things come to a crisis, and men “are proven by the hour” of that judgment; the unripe or untimely fruit drops off, as those who have no root in themselves fall away, and as the feebly- founded house fell in the tempest (Matthew 7:26-27). If this be so in the minor and preliminary crisis of the world, how much more so in the final crisis, which will try all? “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” The untimely figs, or unripe figs, are the grosses, or winter figs, which grow under the leaves, and do not ripen at the proper season, but hang upon the trees till the winter. They are a fit emblem of those who have not used the opportunity and season to ripen for God. Like the unwise virgins, they have not replenished their lamps with oil; or, to use the unique expression of St. Luke, they bring no fruit to perfection (Luke 8:14). The crisis thus puts the feeble, timid, and negligent to the test, and also proves the vanity of those who make any world-power their confidence. As the day of the Lord of which Isaiah spoke was upon every one that was proud and lifted up, upon the cedars and oaks, upon the towers and fenced walls, upon the loftiness and haughtiness of men, so does the Apocalyptic seer behold the dismay which falls upon every form of vain gloriousness, pretence, and pride.
And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;(15-17) And the kings . . .—Translate, And the kings of the earth, and the magnates, and the commanders of hosts, and the wealthy, and the strong, and every man, bond and free, hid themselves (going) into the caves and into the rocks of the mountains; and say to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the day, the great (day) of His wrath came (or, is come); and who is able to stand? In the list of the great ones here we may notice the descending order—kings, magnates or statesmen, generals, rich men, strong men, bond and free men. The terror strikes into every class: monarchs and their advisers, the statesmen and diplomatists, the commanders of troops, the merchant princes, the men of ability, as well as the obscurer orders of society. Neither royalty, nor rank, nor force of arms, nor opulence, nor talent, nor strength, either of intellect or frame, avail in that crisis; neither does insignificance escape in that day when God brings to light the hidden things. The tests of God are spiritual, as the weapons of God’s war are not carnal. Men who have relied upon wealth, rank, or power, have prepared themselves against one form of trial, but find themselves unarmed in the day of spiritual testing. Like Macbeth, they are unable to fight with the unexpected shape which haunts them. They would rather meet the bodily foe, “who would dare them to the desert with a sword.”
Thus in the final day of judgment the revealing of the spiritual order of all life will confound men whose minds have been blinded by their entire absorption in world-splendours and world-powers. Nor is it merely the unveiling of the forgotten spiritual order which will confound them. The advent is of a Person. It is more than the manifestation of the kingdom of Him who all this while had been King on His throne, and whom they had forgotten—it is the revealing of God’s Son from heaven. It is not without significance that He is described as the Lamb. In that day of His wrath, it is not as a Judge who has laid aside the tokens of His humiliation and suffering: it is as the Lamb. He whom they now shrink from is He who came meek as a lamb, gentle, pure, and suffering on their behalf. He whom they now behold with dismay is He whom they treated with neglect, and whose love they spurned.
For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?(17) Who shall be (or, is) able to stand?—The thought is derived from Malachi 3:2, which spoke of a coming of the Lord. Every advent of Christ is the advent of One whose fan is in His hand, and who will thoroughly purge His floor. Whether it be His advent in the flesh, He tested men; or whether one of His advents in Providence—such as the fall of Jerusalem, the overthrow of Pagan Rome, the convulsions of the Reformation and Revolution epochs of history—He still tests men whether they are able to abide in faith and love the day of His coming; and much more, then, in the closing personal advent, when these visions will receive their fullest illustration, will He try men. “Who is able to stand?” It is the question of questions. Christ’s answer is: “Apart from Me ye can do nothing.” “Let your loins be girt about and your lights burning, and ye yourselves like to men that wait for their Lord’s coming.” And parallel is St. Paul’s advice: “Wherefore take unto you, (not the weapons on which men rely, but) the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand.” This anxiety that his converts should be ready for the day of testing is continually appearing in his Epistles. Comp, the recurrence of “the day of Christ” in Philippians 1:6; Philippians 1:10, and the Apostle’s wish that the Philippians might be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; and St. John’s desire that Christians should not “be ashamed before Him at His coming,” and “may have boldness in the day of judgment” (1John 2:28; 1John 4:17). “Who is able to stand?” The question is answered in the next chapter. They shall stand who are sealed with the seal of the living God.
The sixth seal does not give us a completed picture. We see the great and awe-inspiring movements which are heralds of the day of wrath. The whole world is stirred and startled at the tread of the approaching Christ, and then the vision melts away; we see no more, but we have seen enough to be sure that the close of the age is at hand. Yet we are anxious to know something of those who have been faithful, pure, and chivalrous witnesses for truth and right, for Christ and God. In that day, that awful day, the whole population of the world seems to be smitten with dismay; the trees, shaken with that terrible tempest, seem to be shedding all their fruit; the trembling of all created things seems to be about to shake down every building. Are all to go? Are none strong enough to survive? We heard that there were seven seals attached to the mystic book which the Lion of the tribe of Judah was opening; but this sixth seal presents us with the picture of universal desolation; what is there left for the seventh seal to tell us? The answer to these questions is given in the seventh chapter, which introduces scenes which may either be taken as dissolving views, presented in the course of the sixth seal, or as complementary visions. And those scenes show us in pictorial form that the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation: that in the midst of the time of the shaking of all things, when all might, majesty, strength, and genius of men is laid low, and every mere earth-born kingdom is overthrown, there is a kingdom which cannot be shaken. The germ of life was indestructible, and ready to break forth in fruit again: an ark, which sheltered all that was good, moved ever secure over the desolating floods:—
“I looked: aside the dust-cloud rolled,
The waster seemed the builder too;
Upspringing from the ruined old
I saw the new.
“’Twas but the ruin of the bad—
The wasting of the wrong and ill;
Whate’er of good the old time had Was living still.
Was living still.”