Great Texts of the Bible
After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation, and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God which sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb.—Revelation 7:9-10.
1. The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia end with the third chapter of the Apocalypse. The fourth and fifth chapters describe two great acts of worship. In the fourth chapter God is worshipped as the Creator. The four Cherubim, or Living Creatures, representing all created life, are seen in perpetual adoration of their Maker. The four-and-twenty Elders—the patriarchs of the Old Covenant and the apostles of the New—fall down before the throne and worship God, saying, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honour and the power: for thou didst create all things.”
The fifth chapter introduces the great work of redemption. The Lamb appears in the midst of the throne, typical of the eternal Son, the Redeemer of the world. As He takes the Book of Doom from His Father’s hands, the four Living Creatures and the four-and-twenty Elders fall down before Him and sing a new song, the song of the redeemed. The angel chorus pours forth its chant of thanksgiving to the Lamb, and every creature in heaven and earth and sea joins in the act of adoration.
Then at the ninth verse of the seventh chapter this second great act of worship enters on a new stage. The congregation, which hitherto has been drawn from the twelve tribes of Israel, is now seen to be a great multitude which no man can number, and it is taken from every nation upon the earth.
2. The redeemed are at worship. Where are they? They are in heaven, no doubt. But heaven is not to be identified with the world to come. Life before the throne God says Swete is life wherever spent, if it is dminated by a joyful consciousness of the Divine Presence and Glory. And he adds that the present picture must be correlated with hat of chapters 21. and 22.
The text suggests, first, the number of the redeemed; second, their variety; and thin, their unity—their unity being seen (1) in their position or standing; (2) in their character; (3) in their feeling; and (4) in their occupation.
The Number of the Redeemed
1. “A great multitute, which no man could number.” It is a vision. But St. John had some material to work upon. Says Harnack, “The vigour and the variety of the forms already assumed by Christianity in these quarters are shown by the seven epistles to the Churches in the Johannine Apocalypse, by the whole tenor of the book, and by the Ignatian Writings.”
Tacitus, the careful Roman historian, in writing of the persecution of the Christians, under Nero in 64 a.d., says of their number that they were a huge multitude—“ingens multitudo.” The expansion of Christianity in the first years of its existence is one of the marvels of history. When it first began to be preached it was ridiculed and lampooned by the ablest satirists of the day. Every foul crime was charged upon its followers. The believers in the Christ were tortured, mutilated, thrown to wild beasts. Yet in spite of everything the church grew, grew and increased rapidly in numbers and in power.
Seventy years after the founding of the very first Gentile church in Syrian Antioch, Pliny wrote in the strongest terms about the spread of Christianity throughout remote Bithynia, a spread which in his view already threatened other cults through out the province. Seventy years later still the Paschal controversy reveals the existence of a Christian federation of churches, stretching from Lyons to Edessa, with its headquarters situated at Rome. Seventy years later again, the Emperor Decius—the fierce persecutor—declared he would sooner have a rival emperor in Rome than a Christian bishop. And are another seventy years had passes, the cross was sewn upon the Roman colours.1 [Note: H. T. Sell, Studies in Early Church History, 150.]
2. But the vastness is the outcome of faith much more than of sight. In another place St. John states the impression which the physical eye receives: “We are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.” The eye of faith is the eye of that God who invited Abraham to go out into the evening and count the number of the stars. It is the eye of that Christ of God who planted the mustard seed which grew into a great tree.
As their praise was erst not of men but of God, so now their number is known not to men but to God. “So many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the seashore innumerable.” “I beheld,” says St. John: and you with your eyes, I with mine (please God!) shall yet behold.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, The Face of the Deep, 31.]
3. The text is an answer at last to the question, “Are there few that be saved?” Were we to answer that question by sight we should probably answer it quite otherwise, our judgment being formed partly from the state of our own heart, and partly from what we see around us. With our own heart we cannot be too stern. To it Christ’s answer is addressed, “Strive ye to enter in.” With our neighbour we cannot perhaps be too lenient. In any case our neighbour has a right to ask, “Who made thee a judge or a divider over us?” We do not know enough to form a judgment.
Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias.
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.2 [Note: Robert Burns.]
It is recorded of Daniel Webster that he was travelling in a then uninhabited part of Western America which is now covered by great and populous cities. As he and a friend were exploring that vast solitude, Webster suddenly lowered his head and seemed to listen.
“What are you doing?” inquired his friend.
“I am listening for the tramp of the coming millions!” replied Webster, his face aglow with confidence in the future greatness of his country.
1. The variety is as great as the number. What a distance St. John has travelled! It is a long way for his feet from the shores of Galilee to the isle that is called Patmos; but how much father for his heart, from his hope for the seed of Abraham to this assurance of all nations and tongues! There is nothing that some men seem so sure about as the limitation of our Lord’s outlook. It is true He was not sent in His lifetime on earth but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But it was Christ, and not St. Paul, that enabled St. John to see the variety of the redeemed.
2. Every nation, and every variety of individual in every nation, every variety of gift and ministry—singers in choirs, nurses and doctors, visitors of the sick, priests, prophets, pastors, missioners, Bible-women, mothers, daughters—“I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” These are of the redeemed now. They do not need to wait for death to find their place in St. John’s majestic vision. “For all the saints who from their labours rest”—yes, certainly, for Livingstone and Gordon and Shaftesbury, for Lawrence and Martyn and Duff and Grenfell—but also for the saints who are still bearing the burden and heat of the day. O blessed union, fellowship Divine! “Next to the presence of God and the Lamb,” says Hort, “the highest blessing is the presence of them who follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.”
3. What an encouragement it is to the missionary! “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” We are only now realizing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the communication of the love of God to the hearts of men; that Christianity is a spiritual power and impulse stirring all that is great and noble in the soul, not only making righteousness a dream, but also making it a dream realized in hearts transformed into the image of God. Christianity is indigenous in every land and among every race because Christianity is the love of God out-flowing to men—and than primal feeling of love every race knows. But it is only in this last generation that we have realized it. In times of strife Christianity was thought of as a system which put iron in the blood. When we pierced down to the heart of Christianity, felt its throb again, realized that it was the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, then the way opened out for the sending of the gospel to the heathen world, and the nations were moved at its approach, as if they, too, were prepared for its coming.
There never has been a day of opportunity like this in the history of the Church and the world. The way is open; the door is open; the hearts of the nations are open. Will the Churches rise to the great call which summons them? Will they, failing to obey Christ, and failing to communicate Him, themselves lose Him? Is the element of the heroic still vigorous in Christianity? Does Christ still stir the hearts of His people so that they are willing to die for Him?
“A people is upon thee loving death as thou lovest life,” was the message of the Mohammedan of old to his enemy. Is there still in Christendom the spirit which loves death for Christ’s sake? If there be, then in this, the great day of opportunity, the tide of the world’s destiny will be turned towards the Lord Jesus Christ. And it will be turned. For the Spirit is still in the midst of the Church, and until the end adoring lips will cry—
“Now let me burn out for God.”1 [Note: N. Maclean, Can the World be Won for Christ? 174.]
In the early days of New Zealand history, Governor (afterwards Sir) George Grey was walking, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, with Bishop Selwyn. They entered a tent, followed by a messenger bearing dispatches which had just arrived. One letter to the bishop brought the news of the death of Siapo, a Loyalty Islander, who had become a Christian, and was being educated at Auckland under the bishop’s supervision. Overcome with grief, Selwyn burst into tears. Then turning to the Governor, he exclaimed, “Why, you have not shed a single tear!” “No,” replied Grey, “I have been so wrapped in thought that I could not weep. I have been thinking of the prophecy that men of every race were to be assembled in the kingdom of heaven. I have tried to imagine the joy and wonder prevailing there at the coming of Siapo, the first Christian of his race. He would be glad evidence that another people of the world had been added to the teaching of Christ.” “Yes, yes,” said Selwyn, “that is the true idea to entertain; I shall weep no more!”
The multitude that no man can number is a Society. Their robes have become white because every stain of selfishness has been washed from them by the blood of the Lamb. Their palms show that they have gotten the victory over those causes which have destroyed the unity of kindreds and nations here. There is no dull uniformity, no single tongue: all is harmonious amidst diversity. Here, some have glorified power to the destruction of meekness; some have pretended that meekness is incompatible with strength. There, all give glory to Him that sitteth on the throne, and to the Lamb. Here, men who are sealed in the Name of God have thought that they glorified that Name most by declaring His damnation of His enemies or theirs. In that company, the one word which is connected with the Divine Name is salvation—salvation from the curse that men have made for themselves.
“All nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.”—Never, since Babel, a unison; no longer, since the first Christian Pentecost, an inevitable discord: for ever and ever, a harmony. Babel dissolved the primitive unison into discord: Pentecost reduced the prevalent discord to contingent harmony, but reclaimed it not into unison. Unison is faultless: harmony is perfect. On earth the possibility of harmony entails the corresponding possibility of discord. Even on earth, however, whoever chooses can himself or herself keep time and tune: which will be an apt prelude for keeping eternity and tune in heaven.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, The Face of the Deep, 231.]
A Canadian bishop has lately described what he saw and heard one night. He and some friends were on one side of a great Canadian river; a company of Christian Indians on the other. As the Englishmen gazed into the falling fire they heard a hymn across the river. This was succeeded by a hush. The song of the Red men across the water drew out a song from them, and that touched the Indians to a prayer whose measured tones just reached them across the water. O sweet communion of saints! “What was the river between?” asks the bishop. What, indeed? On one side there rose prayers and praises in the language of Milton and Shakespeare, of saints and sages; on the other, in words borrowed by the wild hunters from the glee of the waterfall or from the sighing of the pinewood. Yet once again the whole earth seemed to be “of one language and of one lip.” Out from the darkness there rose not a mere picture—a reality. Not the white Christ, with the blood-drops trickling down; but the living Christ, radiant and mighty. The harp of language with its myriad chords rang out through the starry silence. Not the Indian and the English only. Not one language was quite absent from the chorus. No longer Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. “All nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.”1 [Note: Archbishop Alexander, Verbum Crucis, 126.]
Principal D. W. Simon illustrates (Twice Born, 194) the unity and diversity of the redeemed by quotations from the hymns of the world. First of all he shows how widespread is the acceptance of a hymn like “Rock of Ages.” Our English hymn-books, he goes on, teem with translations from the German, with translations from the Latin, with translations from the Greek—“Jesus! Thy boundless love to me” (German); “Jesus! Thou joy of loving hearts!” (Latin); “O happy band of pilgrims” (Greek). It is an illustration that might be worked out easily and with much effect.
1. They are one in their Position or Standing—“standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Once they were “strangers and foreigners”; now they are “fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” Once they were far off; now they are made nigh. Once they were afraid to draw near; now they have access with boldness. “Happy are thy men,” said the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, “which stand continually before thee.” Happy are they who stand before the throne and before the Lamb. It is this that marks the difference between the first vision and the second, between the worship of the Creator and the worship of the Redeemer. They who worship the Creator veil their faces with their wings; every one of the redeemed, however vast their number and various, is made nigh by the blood of Christ.
Longings for pardon, for rest, for peace are met by the simple acceptance of this Saviour, whose blood speaks peace to the conscience and whose love brings rest to the heart. So powerful is this sprinkled blood that it can carry a sinner into the holiest of all to hold communion at the Mercy-seat with a reconciled God and Father. “One touch of this cleansing blood seals the soul for service.” Its voice—like the sound of the waves on the shore—is ever speaking peace in a believer’s ear, “sometimes loudly, sometimes less clearly, but always speaking.” “If a believer can do without the blood he is a backslider.” “At the Bush Moses was forbidden to draw nigh, but afterwards on the Mount he went up into the very presence of God. What made the difference? At the Bush there was no sacrifice.”1 [Note: Reminiscences of Andrew A. Bonar, 134.]
2. In Character—“arrayed in white robes.” The white robes, we are afterwards told, are the righteous acts of the saints. They are an exchange for the “filthy rags” of selfishness and selfrighteousness. If still here, they may not be wholly white; but even here He sees them in their shield, and looks upon them in the face of His anointed, and He sees no iniquity in Jacob and no perverseness in His Israel. And yet it is no hollow, fictitious righteousness. Their will consents. They themselves have washed their own robes—only they have not washed them in their own blood; they have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
It is related of Queen Victoria that one day she visited a paper-mill, the owner of which showed her through the works, and, not knowing who she was, took her, among other places, into the rag-room. When she saw the filthy rags, out of which the paper is made, she exclaimed, “How can these ever be made white?” “Ah, lady!” was the reply, “I have a chemical process of great power, by which I can take the colour even out of these rags!” Before she left, the owner discovered that she was the Queen. A few days after, the Queen found lying upon her writing-desk some of the most beautifully polished writing-paper she had ever seen. On each sheet were stamped the letters of her name, and her likeness. There was also a note from the mill-owner, asking her to accept a specimen of the paper, with the assurance that every sheet was manufactured out of the dirty rags she had seen.
3. In Feeling—“and palms in their hands.” Archbishop Trench will have it that it is a feeling of joy. For the Apocalypse, he says, moves altogether in the circle of sacred imagery; all its symbols and images are derived from the Old Testament. And so he refers to the Feast of Tabernacles, when with branches of palm trees the people rejoiced before the Lord seven days. But the Seer of the Apocalypse was certainly familiar with the palm as a symbol of victory. And perhaps the two ideas are not so far apart. If it was joy, it was the joy of a great triumph, triumph over the world, the flesh, and the devil; the joy of being more than conquerors through Him that loved them. In the presence of Christ has always been fulness of joy, downward from the time in which “your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day.”
It is more natural to think that the mention of the palms here, together with the expression in Revelation 7:15, “He that sitteth on the throne shall spread his tabernacle over them,” is intended to indicate that the redeemed are represented as keeping the Feast of Tabernacles. At that feast not only was it the custom for the faithful to dwell in booths or tents, but also in the festal solemnities to carry in their hands palm branches with myrtles and willows, in fulfilment of the charge in Leviticus 23:40 : “Ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook.” These palm branches, or lulabs, as they were called, were borne in procession by the worshippers on each of the seven days of the solemnity, when they accompanied the priest to the pool of Siloam, as he went to draw water from thence, to bring it to the Temple and pour it out by the altar. So this great multitude which St. John sees bear palms in their hands when the Lamb is about to lead them to no earthly fountain or pool, but to “living fountains of waters.” This view seems also to obtain a further confirmation from the fact that the thought of the tabernacle feast is not unknown to the prophets of the Old Testament in connexion with the future of the Church of God, e.g., Zechariah 14:16. It was not merely that this feast formed the most joyous of all the festive seasons of Israel; it was rather that it was the “feast of ingathering,” a sort of harvest home, and was thus regarded as pointing forward to the final harvest when Israel’s mission should be completed, and all nations should be gathered unto the Lord.
The Feast of Tabernacles commences five days after the Day of Atonement and lasts seven days. Its observance is commanded in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 23:34), and its purpose is there explained as to commemorate the way in which the Israelites dwelt in booths (sukkoth) during their journey through the wilderness.
Every Jew who owns a court or garden is required to erect a booth, or something more or less equivalent, and to dwell in it—or at least have meals in it—while the feast lasts. In order that the character of the original booth may as far as possible be retained, the modern counterpart is very lightly constructed. It “must not be covered with fixed boards and beams or with canvas, but with detached branches of trees, plants, flowers, and leaves, in such a manner that the covering is not quite impenetrable to wind and rain, or starlight.” The booths are adorned with garlands, flowers, and the like.
In the Synagogue the ancient and original character of the celebration as a Harvest Festival—the “Feast of Ingathering,” or thanksgiving for the gathered produce of the fields and gardens—is made prominent in various ways. The Synagogue itself is decorated with plants and fruits; and there are the palm-branch processions. The worshipper takes the palm-branch (lulab) in the right hand, and the ethrog or citron (fixed in a metal receptacle) in the left, reciting as he does so the following blessings:
(1) Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and commanded us to take up the palm-branch.
(2) Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast preserved us alive, sustained us, and brought us to enjoy this season.
These are lifted up during the recitation of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) in morning prayer. At the end of the Musaf or “Additional” prayer, a procession is formed, and the worshippers with the citron and palm-branch, make a circuit while certain prayers called “Hosannas” (Hosha’anoth) are recited.
The joyous character of the festival finds its fullest expression on the seventh day, the popular name of which is Hosha’na Rabba (“The great Hosanna”). It is so called because the exclamation “Hosanna,” and the “Hosanna-processions” are much more frequent than on the preceding six days. Seven processions take place round the whole Synagogue, a separate “hosanna” hymn being sung each time.
At the completion of the processions, the worshippers being now in their places, the lulab is laid aside and the willow-bunch taken up, and a few more poetical pieces are said. All join in the messianic hymn beginning “A voice brings glad tidings, brings glad tidings, and says.” Then with the utterance of a petition for forgiveness of sins each shakes or strikes the willow-bunch on the desk before him till its leaves fall off, and throws it away.1 [Note: W. O. E. Oesterley and G. H. Box, The Religion and Worship of the Synagogue, 397, 401.]
4. In Occupation—“they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation.” Their occupation is worship, of course. All their life is worship. St. John cannot conceive any one of the redeemed otherwise occupied than in worshipping, whether he is in the home, or the field, or the market-place. But the special form of the worship that attracts his attention is praise. Their great cry is a song, and there is no discord in it. Every person of every tribe has a voice and sings in harmony with all the rest.
Their cry is the acknowledgment that their salvation—the salvation which they now taste—is due not to themselves, but to their God and to the Lamb. The salvation here must be taken in its most comprehensive sense, including every deliverance—from the curse of law, from the power of sin, and from the perils of life. This is “the voice of rejoicing and salvation which is in the tabernacles of the righteous,” when the Lord, who is their strength and song, “has become their salvation.”
Salvation to our God, our salvation is unto, is wholly due to, our God. “Salvation belongeth unto the Lord”: it is all His, from first to last; every step of the way, and its termination. Yes, self-confidence, self-righteousness, self-exaltation, vanity, there, in heaven, in God’s presence, will be as impossible as they are natural and common here.… The “great multitude which no man could number” of the ransomed and saved, standing in heaven “before the throne” of God, join with one voice in ascribing solely to Him and to the Lamb the praise of their salvation. And the Angels, “in whose presence,” while earth lasted, “there was joy over every sinner,” one by one, “who repented,” may well rejoice, with a joy accumulated and intensified, over the final ingathering of all who have been saved. Most of all, well may they echo the ascription of all glory to God and to the Lamb. Amen, even so; it is indeed He who hath kept us from our fall; it is indeed He who hath brought you back from yours!1 [Note: C. J. Vaughan, Lectures on the Revelation of St. John, 192.]
What are these lovely ones, yea, what are these?
Lo these are they who for pure love of Christ
Stripped off the trammels of soft silken ease,
Beggaring themselves betimes, to be sufficed
Throughout heaven’s one eternal day of peace:
By golden streets, thro’ gates of pearl unpriced,
They entered on the joys that will not cease,
And found again all firstfruits sacrificed.
And wherefore have you harps, and wherefore palms,
And wherefore crowns, O ye who walk in white?
Because our happy hearts are chanting psalms,
Endless Te Deum for the ended fight;
While thro’ the everlasting lapse of calms
We cast our crowns before the Lamb our Might.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poetical Works, 212.]
Alexander (W.), Verbum Crucis, 127.
Barry (A.), Sermons Preached at Westminister Abbey, 247.
Bonar (H.), Light and Truth: The Revelation, 190.
Brooke (S. A.), The Spirit of the Christian Life, 237.
Conn (J.), The Fulness of Time, 200.
Dearden (H. W.), Parochial Sermons, 55.
Gibson (E. C. S.), The Revelation of St. John the Divine, 105.
Grimley (H. N.), Tremadoc Sermons, 63.
Hyde (T. D.), Sermon-Pictures for Busy Preachers, i. 189.
Johnson (J. B.), A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John, 77.
Jones (J. S.), The Invisible Things, 220.
Maurice (F. D.), Lincoln’s Inn Sermons, ii. 267.
Milligan (W.), The Book of Revelation (Expositor’s Bible), 124.
Paget (E. C.), Silence, 208.
Romanes (E.), Thoughts on the Collects for the Trinity Season, 293.
Rossetti (C. G.), The Face of the Deep, 231.
Skrine (J. H.), The Heart’s Counsel, 90.
Stone (S. J.), Parochial Sermons, 81.
Swete (H. B.), The Apocalypse of St. John, 99.
Trench (R. C.), Sermons Preached for the Most Part in Ireland, 360.
Vaughan (C. J.), Lectures on the Revelation of St. John, 191.
Christian World Pulpit, xliv. 174 (J. M. Wilson).
Churchman’s Pulpit: All Saints, xv. 363 (J. S. Jones).