Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. A TOKEN OF THE DIVINE RECOGNITION OF EVERY INDIVIDUAL BELIEVER. Each is sealed on his forehead. "The Lord knoweth them that are his."
II. IT IS A PLEDGE OF PERSONAL SECURITY. In the general judgments many even of the faithful suffer. This is inevitable. But the anomalous words of our Lord shall be fulfilled, "Ye shall be delivered up by parents... put to death, hated of all men; and not a hair of your head shall perish." In all judgments the lowly believer may rest in the assurance of personal safety. All shall be well in the end if the Lord's seal is upon the forehead.
III. THE VISION IS A GRACIOUS REVELATION OF GOD. It is of his goodness that he has thus shown beforehand his careful defence of his own in times of judgment and fear. "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not."
IV. THE VISION AFFORDS GROUND FOR THE UTMOST ENCOURAGEMENT TO FAITH AND HOPE. It is a spring of pure consolation. The Divine warrant of safety each believer may ever carry with him. The cruelties of men may bring him suffering, but not the judgments of God. Ever may the disciples know that when the Lord proceeds to judgment he will first seal his own. - R.G.
I. THE WORLD EXPOSED TO JUDGMENT. It is represented as exposed to "the four winds of the earth." Winds are the symbols of judgment. Thus in Jeremiah 49:36, 37 we read, "And upon Elam will I bring the four winds from the four quarters of heaven, and will scatter them toward all those winds; and there shall be no nation whither the outcasts of Elam shall not come. For I will cause Elam to be dismayed before their enemies, and before them that seek their life: and I will bring evil upon them, even my fierce anger, saith the Lord; and I will send the sword after them, till I have consumed them." And in the prophecy of Daniel 7:2 we have these words, "I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea." The four winds indicate the universality of the judgment. They were to come from the four points of the compass - north, south, east, west. Whether this universal judgment refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, or some other judicial event that is passed, or points to some future period of retribution in the history of the world, I stay not to inquire. One thing is certain, that there is a universal judgment impending over this earth. It hangs over "every corner of the earth." Its winds will rush in fearful tornadoes from all the points of the compass. Conscience, providence, and the Bible all point to this universal judgment.
II. THE JUDGMENT ENTRUSTED TO ANGELS. The words speak of "four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea." Angels are the ministers of God. He employs them to execute his judgments.
1. They appeared amidst the terrors of Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 33:2, "The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from Mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of saints: from his right hand went a fiery Law for them." Again in Psalm 68:17 we read, "The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the holy place."
2. They appeared with our Saviour in the destruction of Jerusalem. (Matthew 24:30, 31.)
3. Angels have been frequently engaged in executing Divine judgment on this earth. They acted in connection with the destruction of Sodom, and an angel dealt out judgment to the Egyptians in the destruction of their firstborn (Exodus 12:22). An angel wreaked vengeance on the people of Jerusalem on account of the sin of David (2 Samuel 24:16, 17). An angel destroyed the mighty army of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:35).
III. THE ANGELS RESTRAINED BY A MEDIATOR. "And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads." Observe:
1. The glorious origin of this angel. He ascended "from the east;" from the fountain of glory - the east, whence the stars appear, and the glorious sun comes forth to flood the world with light.
2. The Divine credentials of this angel. "Having the seal of the living God."
3. The great earnestness of this angel. "Cried with a loud voice." Who is this angel? Who is represented in this particular case I know not. But I know that the great angel of the covenant answers well this description. He came from the orient depths of glory with Divine credentials and with great earnestness, in order to stay the angels of retribution from executing their terrible commission. Our great Redeemer holds back the hand of the destroying angel, and the burden of his intercession is, "Hurt not the earth, neither the sea." To Christ we owe the postponement of the judgment.
IV. THE MEDIATOR RESTRAINING BECAUSE HIS WORK IS UNFINISHED. Why does this intercessory angel, rising from the glorious east, interpose to prevent the judicial angels from discharging their dread commission? Because there was a work to be done. The servants of God were to be "sealed in their foreheads." The image of the sealing is derived from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 9:2-6, 11). Its object was to mark out certain persons as belonging to God, and thus to save them from the miseries of the impending judgment. The effect of the seal visible in the forehead would be like that of the blood on the door posts of the Israelites in the last terrible plague of the Egyptians. "When he seeth it he will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you." Two thoughts are suggested.
1. That there are men who are yet to receive the seal of God. Thousands in ages gone by have had his likeness impressed upon them, and thousands are being impressed in this age, but there are millions more to be sealed in future times. There are men from unborn generations who are to be sealed.
2. That the judgment is delayed until the number of the sealed ones is complete. "Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed," etc. Thus our blessed Mediator is keeping up the world until all his disciples are gathered into his fold, and his purposes of mercy realized. In the majesty of infinite mercy he stands as it were in the midst of the universe. He sees the storm of judgment brooding in the heavens. He sees the angels of justice quartered in every part of the firmament, ready to execute their terrible commission. He waves his hand, and bids them halt. "Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads." Let not even such a breath of judgment pass from your hand as shall wake a ripple on the "sea," or stir a leaf on the "trees." Let mercy reign supreme until my work is finished. Then, when all my redeemed ones are sealed with the seal of God "on their foreheads" and made secure, then let loose your awful winds. Let them rush with their tornadoes of fire, and roar with their thunders of retribution, and destroy this earth; for the mystery of God will be finished.
"Accuse not Heaven's delay; if loth to strike,
Divine management of the world, and they suggest two facts concerning it.
I. THAT GOD EMPLOYS THE HIGHEST ORDER OF CELESTIAL INTELLIGENCES IN THE CONDUCT OF HIS GOVERNMENT. "After these things [after this] I saw four angels standing on [at] the four corners of the earth." The existence of intelligences in the universe, varying in capacity and degree, but all loyal to Heaven and transcending immeasurably man's attributes of wisdom, power, and speed, is suggested by analogy and abundantly taught in the Scriptures, both the Old and the New. Now, these creatures are here represented as occupying all parts of nature, "standing on the four corners of the earth," and thus controlling the winds of the world - the east, the west, the south, and the north. They are endowed with power to turn the winds to any point of the compass, and to regulate them to any degree of power or temperature, raising them to a fury that will shake the earth, and reducing them to a calmness hushing the world to sleep. Is there anything absurd in this? Assuredly not. It is natural, rational, and consistent with every part of nature. Everywhere through the universe God acts by mediation. Nowhere throughout immensity does be appear to act directly, matter on matter, and mind on all. The principle is enunciated in the Old Testament. "It shall come to pass in that day, I will hear, saith the Lord, I will hear the heavens, and they shall hear the earth; and the earth shall hear the corn, and the wine, and the oil; and they shall hear Jezreel" (Hosea 2:21, 22). The mere scientist accounts for the various objects and phenomena of the material world by what he calls blind forces or natural laws; I prefer ascribing all under God to the "angels standing on the four corners of the earth, and holding the four winds." A wonderful view of the universe, truly, we have here. True, a telescope opens to my vision world upon world and system upon system, until imagination reels at the prospect, and my spirit seems crushed with a sense of its own insignificance; but in these words I have a telescope by which I see the wide fields of the air, the rolling planets, the minute and the vast, the proximate and the remote, peopled and working, reaching in regular gradation from my little being up to the ineffable throne, and all under God.
II. THAT GOD, IN EMPLOYING THESE AGENCIES, ENJOINS ON THEM A SPECIAL REGARD FOR THE INTERESTS OF REDEEMED MEN IN THE WORLD. "And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God," etc. Why not "hurt the earth"? Why not reduce all nature to a wreck? There is a grand, benevolent reason: "till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads." "Of the tribe of Judah were sealed," etc. (vers. 5-8). The Jewish mind regarded Israel as especially the elect of God, and all the tribes in their esteem were specially Divine. This, of course, was a fiction of national vanity. But take them here as a symbolical representation of all the truly good men upon the earth, and we have the idea that God requires all his intelligent ministries to regard the interests of such. The seal must be regarded as implying security. Here is an angel rising as it were from "the door of the dawn," from the east, with a seal in order to effect the security of the good. Angels, we are taught, are "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister to those who shall be the heirs of salvation." Numerous are the instances recorded in the Bible in which we see them render assistance to man. They rescued Lot from Sodom, and guarded Daniel in the lion's den; they directed Joseph and Mary into Egypt, and liberated the apostles from prison; they directed Cornelius to Peter, and wafted the spirit of Lazarus to the skies. They rejoice over the conversion of sinners; they have a charge over the righteous, they encamp round about them, they bear them up in their hands. Their ministry implies:
1. That there is some method by which they can aid man.
2. That man's salvation is of paramount importance.
3. That service to the lowest is consonant with the highest greatness.
4. That man's obligation is to seek the spiritual good of his fellows. - D.T.
Jeremiah 49:36, 37). The angels who are about to let them loose are bidden pause. Like as, ere the last judgment came upon Egypt, there was time given to enable the people of God to sprinkle the lintel and door posts of their houses with the blood of the Paschal lamb, which was God's seal of preservation for them. And like, too, to that remarkable parallel, from which, indeed, the imagery of our text is derived, which we find in Ezekiel 9:2-6, 11. As was the object of the sealing there, so it is here. Now, whether we take the primary reference of the impending judgments, which for a while were delayed in their execution, to be those, as we think, which were then about to fall upon Jerusalem and the apostate Church of Israel; or those which at the time of Constantine, through the threatened overwhelming of the empire, were imminent on her frontiers; or those which corruption, venality, and hypocrisy, engendered by Constantine's having made Christianity the court religion, were about to bring upon the Church; or - which is probably the most correct way to understand St. John - we include all these, and all other similar ones, not omitting the last great judgment of all, which at any time may have hung or shall hang over nations, Churches, and communities - however we interpret this revelation, it is as true as the judgments them selves that the merciful Lord does grant seasons of suspense, his judgments are delayed until his servants are marked, proclaimed as his own, and secured from real evil by his own sovereign and sacred seal. For historical illustrations of this sealing we may wisely turn to the pages of Josephus and of Gibbon, the historians of the Jewish war and of the fall of Rome. And so exact are oftentimes the correspondences between authentic history and these visions of St. John, that we can hardly be surprised that not a few have declared that what is called the historical interpretation of the hook is the only true, reasonable, and reliable one. It certainly is fascinating for its interest, but as for its reliableness, that may he admitted when its advocates can show anything like near agreement amongst themselves. It is better, therefore, to take the broader view, which admits all these correspondences, and the applicability thereto of these various visions, but which refuses to limit their meaning and application to anything less than all like correspondences which have occurred since St. John wrote, and which shall occur to the end of time. Now, to a thoughtful observer, it can hardly be a question but what our own days are days of suspended judgment, and days also in which the sealing of the servants of God is going on. For man's sin, as ever, clamours for judgment from God, and righteousness wronged and slain upon the earth cries, like the blood of Abel, unto God that he should avenge it. And the judgment will one day come. The history of nations and Churches is scattered over with the records of such judgments, and will be so again, until men learn wisdom and turn unto the Lord. But our security, whenever they come, is in the seal of God, told of here. Let us think, then, of this seal, the sealed, and the sealing. And -
I. THE SEAL.
1. What is it? With the Scriptures in our hand, we can have no doubt that the Holy Spirit of God is meant (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:21, 22; Ephesians 4:30). The work that he does in and upon his people is the sure sign and seal that they are his. "The Holy Spirit is God's seal. Where he is there is safety. Where he is God sees his mark, his own possession, one who belongs to him, one over whom he watches, one whom he will keep in that 'hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.'"
2. And this seal is the holy character which the Spirit of God creates in and impresses upon a man. The Spirit does other and blessed work upon us besides this. It is by him we are led to put our trust in Christ; by him we are assured that we are Christ's, and that he is ours, that we are pardoned, accepted, saved; by him also we are comforted and sustained under trial, and made possessors of the peace of God which passeth all understanding; and by him, hope, the blessed hope of eternal life, the onlook to things eternal, which is so full of joy, is created and preserved and strengthened more and more. But all this is within the man; the seal is that which is impressed on him, is that which we call the man's character. And it is a holy character, such as the Holy Spirit would of necessity produce.
3. And it is the seal of the living God. It belongs to him, his sign and mark. There is none other like it, nor has been, nor can be. Holy character can come but from the grace of God alone, from the operation of the Holy Spirit given by God in response to earnest desire. We cannot produce it in ourselves by any mere act of will, by any moral discipline, by any rules or regulations we may devise or adopt. Except a man be born of the Spirit he cannot become a member of the kingdom of God. Holy character - that which shone pre-eminently in the Lord Jesus Christ, who, as none other, was "holy, harmless, and undefiled," who "knew no sin" - is the result of the grace of God, is the impress of the seal of the living God, which is the Holy Spirit of God.
4. And it is a visible thing. The seal being "on their foreheads" is meant to teach this fact. And holy character is a visible thing. If invisible it assuredly does not exist. Men may prate forever about their experiences and their feelings, but if there be no manifest holy character, then the seal of the living God is not there. Have we this seal? Is it plain and conspicuous as would be the impress of a seat upon our forehead? It is fatal to be without it; for "if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his." Therefore to quicken our own self inquiry in this matter, let us consider -
II. THE SEALED. And we observe concerning them:
1. They are not numerous. But twelve thousand out of each tribe - a very few compared with those left unsealed. A mere handful, but a "remnant saved."
2. And they are out of, not coextensive with, the professing Church of God. Not all Israel are of Israel (Romans 9:6). They all professed loudly to be of the seed of Abraham, but their entire history shows how little they, as a people, possessed the Spirit. To be a professed member of the Church may be quite another thing from being one of the sealed of God.
3. And they are from no one part of the Church. Twelve tribes are told of, not any one or two. "Nulla salus extra Ecclesiam," by which Rome means her Church and none other, for other she would affirm there is none. And the like sectarian exclusiveness is chargeable against not Rome alone. But wherever it is found, the fact told of here, that the sealed come from all sections of the Church, plainly condemns it. We ought to rejoice that in all Churches the sealed ones are to be found, and are limited to none. Indeed, those tribes which loomed largest in the eyes of men, such as Ephraim and Judah, furnished no more of these sealed ones than did those who were least, such as "little Benjamin," and other like smaller tribes. Many who were first should be last, and the last first. And it often is so still.
4. Portions of the Church may become so corrupt as to furnish none of the sealed. The tribe of Dan is left out. It first fell into idolatry, and was for centuries one of the headquarters of that calf worship whereby "Jeroboam made Israel to sin." This may account for its omission in this list of the tribes, and if so suggests the reason wherefore none of the chosen of God were found amongst its people. And there may be Churches and congregations now without one earnest godly person amongst them. Let us ask how is it with the Church or congregation to which we belong.
5. They do not suffer from not belonging to any specially privileged portion of the Church. If any tribe was specially privileged it was that of Levi. They were regarded as the Lord's portion; the priesthood belonged to them. They were deemed too sacred to be classed with the other more secular tribes. But here they have no advantage; they are with the rest, and no more of God's chosen come from them than from any other tribe. We might have thought it would have been otherwise; but it is not so, and it suggests the truth that the working of God's Spirit in and upon men is independent of what we call privilege. It is good and blessed to have means of grace, aids to worship and faith; but, if the soul will yield itself up to God, he wilt not let it suffer loss for the lack of these things when, as is often the case, they may not be had.
6. The Lord knoweth them all. "The foundation of the Lord standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his." In keeping with this we find the number of the sealed that which denotes fixedness and completeness. They are all there, all delivered, not from earthly trials, but from Divine judgments; not one of them is lost. Blessed are they on whom this seal of the living God is found. For note -
III. THE SEALING. What was its purpose and intents? These were various according to those whom it was designed should he affected by it. The sealed ones themselves.
(1) The sealing should assure them that God would ever keep a people for his Name in the midst of the earth. As they saw the seal of God upon here one and there another, and as they remembered how it had ever been so, they would be saved from the despair which fell upon Elijah, who thought he alone was left to stand up for God. But God showed him the seven thousand sealed ones, and so comforted him. And as we behold them now we are assured that such shall never be wanting.
(2) It would mutually encourage them. It would show them that they were not alone; the joy and strength which come from the communion of saints would be theirs.
(3) It would be full of help to themselves; for as a seal attests validity and genuineness in that to which it is attached, so this seal would prove that their title to be called children of God and heirs of eternal life was valid and true. And as a seal is a mark of ownership - like our government broad arrow on all its property - so this seal was God's declaration they were his; and blessed is that soul that is assured of this. And as a seal secures and guards, as the tomb of our Lord was sealed, so this seal is the guarantee of deliverance and safety amid all possible ill. It was this seal which made Paul break forth into that paean of exultant praise with which the eighth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans concludes. And similar gladness shall it give to all upon whom this seal is found. But:
2. To the unsealed this sealing has intent and purpose. To lead them to confess the beauty of holiness. This has ever been the mighty converting force. The holy character wrought by the Spirit of God has made such impression upon the minds of ungodly men that they have been constrained to gaze at it, to admire, to confess its excellence and goodness, and to feel the wretched contrast of their own lives, and to long after the like seal of God for themselves. And so it has won many to inquire, to repent, to believe, and to be saved. "Let your light so shine," etc. (Matthew 5:16).
3. To the ministers of his judgments. That they might spare the sealed ones. They do. The retreat of the Christians to Pella ere Jerusalem fell, the protection granted to the Church at Rome - Augustine tells of it - in the midst of the havoc that Alaric and his Huns wrought upon the rest of Rome, are illustrations. The passing over of the houses of Israel has been repeated again and again in like circumstances, and will be repeated whensoever such circumstances recur. As the badge of the white cross secures immunity in the midst of war to those who wear it, for it is known that they are ministers of mercy, go where they will, so the seal of the living God, the holy, beautiful, Christ-like lives of his people, have often made men love and honour them, prize and preserve them amid horrors of battle, or of famine, or of pestilence, or aught beside. And at the last great judgment day, when the angels of wrath see the seal of the living God, they will pass over those on whom it is found. What urgency, then, does all this lead to St. Paul's well-known words, "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption!" - S.C.
Genesis 19.). Sodom's ruin was suspended till Lot was safe. The wrath of God was ready to burst forth on the wicked cities of the plain, but it was restrained until the one righteous man in them was removed out of danger. "Until then," so the destroying angel said, "I cannot do anything." That incident is one out of many more, and our text tells of one of the chiefest of them, by which it is shown that goodness has greater power than wickedness. And this is a very instructive fact, and has parallels innumerable. God's recognition of the wrath-restraining might of righteousness is clearly shown in the prayer which Abraham offered for those sinful cities (Genesis 18.). Abraham believed in it to so great an extent that he pleaded that if there were fifty, or forty-five, or forty, or thirty, or twenty, or even ten righteous found in those cities, the Lord would spare them for their sake. And the Lord promised in each case, even were there only ten, that he would. And how often guilty Israel was spared the vengeance due to their sins for the sake of Moses who interceded for them! And the covenant made with their fathers - how often that is given as the reason why God's gracious dealing was continued to them! And once and again we read of forbearance and goodness shown to miserably guilty monarchs, such as Rehoboam, Manasseh, and others, because of the favour God bore towards David, their great and godly ancestor. In the prophecy of Ezekiel (9.) there is given the vision of the man with the ink horn by his side, who, ere Jerusalem could be given over to vengeance, was commanded to set a mark on those who sighed and cried for the abominations done in her. That mark was as the blood of the Paschal lamb on the lintel and door-posts of the houses of Israel, which secured that household on whose dwelling it was found; and so, until this marking had taken place, the guilty Jerusalem could not be touched. And so here St. John sees an angel, having "the seal of the living God," who cries with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, "Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads." Terrible judgments were about to break forth on the earth, but not until the servants of God were sealed could these judgments begin. An historic fact wonderfully corresponds to inspired vision. Before the actual blockade of Jerusalem by Titus, the Christians at Jerusalem, warned, as one ancient Father says, "by a certain oracle given to their leaders by revelation," or, as another says, "by an angel," took refuge across the Jordan, in the Peraean town of Pella. Thus from the horrors of that final siege, and from the fearful slaughter that went on in Jerusalem when at last the city was taken, these servants of God were delivered. And so also, we are told in Matthew 24., that ere the last judgment of the world takes place, the elect shall be gathered together from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. They shall be taken to be with their Lord, where the vengeance coming on his foes cannot harm them. But what in all these instances we would chiefly note is, not so much the blessed security of the righteous themselves when the evil day comes on sinful men, as the restraining power their presence has on the coming of that evil day; how it delays it, holds it back, sometimes altogether turns it aside, or when it comes shortens it; as our Saviour said, "For the elects' sake those days shall be shortened." Verily his disciples are "the salt of the earth" - that preserving force which hinders the world from becoming one mass of corruption. Without such salt human life would become putrescent, and must at once be buried out of sight. Everywhere and always the tares are of the wheat amid which they have been planted by the enemy. Unskilful servants crave permission to go and pull them up forthwith, but are forbidden by the Lord, "lest," he says, "in pulling up the tares ye pull up the wheat also." Because of the "few names in Sardis" which had not defiled their garments, that Church which had nothing but the name of a living Church was nevertheless spared; had she been altogether dead, she would not have been. It is everywhere true that, like as it is with the body, whilst the principle of life lingers, the process of corruption cannot do anything against it; but when life departs, then soon it returns "dust to dust, ashes to ashes," and our loveliest and dearest ones have to be buried out of our sight. So, too, is it in the moral relations of man to God. Where there is some good thing in man towards God, this spiritual life, faint though it be, acts as a mighty conservative force in the individual and in society at large. It is this which keeps earth from being as hell. Sometimes, in some places and in some respects, we almost feel that it is like hell, for life then and there seems so horrible; but more commonly there are scattered amongst society those persons, principles, and habits which still make life worth living, which are its preserving salt, which stay moral corruption, and hold back the Divine judgments against man's evil, and give hope of there being one day a realm in which "the people shall be all righteous,' a new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. And what is true in the broader aspects of human life is true also in individual and in more limited senses. Have we not read of that beloved queen who interceded for the doomed citizens of Calais, and won from her stern husband the pardon which, but for the love he bore her, would never have been granted? Have we not known, also, instances - do we not perpetually see them? - in which former good conduct, righteous deeds done in days gone by, have tempered the severity with which otherwise failures in present conduct would be visited? How we grieve when some soldier hero has deserved punishment! how we all feel that his past heroism should tell, as it does tell, in mitigation of his sentence! And have we not known many an instance in which, for the sake of some beloved and honoured one, whose name is ever dear to us, we show kindness to those they loved, though such may be utterly unworthy of kindness, and, but for the name they bear or the relationship in which they stand to those so dear to us, they would have been dealt with in far other way? These are but common instances in common life of that great law which underlies Scripture facts, such as that told of in our text. But the supreme example of all others of the wrath-restraining power of righteousness is seen in the effects of our Saviour's work, which we every one are advantaged by. Death was threatened against our first parents if they ate of the forbidden fruit. But why did not that death, which had been so solemnly declared, and so fearfully apprehended and shrunk from by the guilty parents of our race - why was not that death inflicted? In the day that the forbidden fruit was eaten, the eaters thereof did not die, but were spared. Why? The answer is the same as that which must be given if it be asked why we are spared, notwithstanding our sin and manifold ill desert. It is because Christ was and is the Propitiation for the sins of the whole world. Beneath the broad shelter of God's love in him, man's Mediator and Redeemer, we are sheltered, protected, saved. We are underneath the shadow of the Almighty; and so, likewise, were the first transgressors. Therefore their threatened doom was not executed. And still it is he who comes between us and the eternal consequences of our sins. The burden of their guilt, the terror of their condemnation, the sting of their remorse, the doom they merit, - all these and yet other consequences of our sin are by Christ warded off from every believer. They can do nothing against us whilst Christ has place in our hearts. He is the great High Priest, with censer full of the fragrant incense of his all-availing intercessions, who stands between the living and the dead, and so the plague is stayed. He is our City of Refuge, within which the avenger of blood can do us no harm; the one Propitiation, by whom our trangressions are covered over and done away. Blessed forever be his Name! And if we ask - Why is it that righteousness has this wrath-restraining power, which in so many instances, and in this supreme instance especially, we have seen it has? the answer will be that given in the well-known words, "The righteous Lord loveth righteousness." Yes; he loveth it, and hence wherever it is found he showeth favour towards it, and for the sake of it will do and forbear to do much. As David for Jonathan's sake was willing to show kindness to any of the rival house of Saul, notwithstanding their disloyalty, so, for the sake of righteousness, all that belong to it, even though the relation be remote, are blessed because of it. It is dear to the heart of God; he has embodied it in his own nature; he has made it the foundation of his throne; it is the household law of his eternal home; he has written it upon the conscience of man; he has made obedience to it fruitful of reward, and disobedience of sorrow; in Christ he has manifested it to the world, and for the sake of it Christ was content to die. In every way conceivable God has shown his love for it, and hence we can understand wherefore it is that he invests it with such power that its presence in a community or family lays its hand even on his own hand, and restrains the vengeance that sin deserves. Yes; it is dear to the heart of God; "the righteous Lord loveth" it; only those who possess it stand in his presence or can be permitted to crone there. And he has endowed it with an overcoming power, so that not only shall light have no counsel with darkness, but wherever it comes it immediately gives the signal for the darkness to flee away. So does righteousness, wherever it is, begin to make war with sin, and ultimately the victory shall be seen to be altogether its own. Though often beaten back and down, buffeted and trampled upon, yet it rises again and renews the conflict, and will carry it on until the righteous cause is triumphant and the evil overthrown. No wonder, therefore, that the righteous Lord loveth it, and for its sake does so many, so wonderful, and so gracious things. But now let us ask - What is this all-important truth to teach us? Surely it should arouse in our minds some such questions as these - Am I in the Righteous One? We have seen how he is the supreme example of righteousness restraining wrath. Ah! what shelter have we, or can we have, when the storm of the Divine displeasure shall fall and beat upon us? Who then will be our refuge and strength, if Christ be not? "Behold, O God our Shield, and look on the face of thine anointed!" When we pray this prayer, who can we think of but the Lord Jesus Christ? He is our Shield, our Champion, our Defender. Are we, then, in him? "How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" And are we like that Righteous One? If we be truly in him, we shall be in some measure like him; and if so, shall belong to that blessed company of whom Christ said, "Ye are the salt of the earth." What are we? Of those on whose account favour and grace are shown to a hind, and life is made peaceful and wholesome; or of those who help to swell that torrent of iniquity which not only degrades, but destroys? Oh, how we ought to value the presence of righteous men in our midst! They are the true safeguards of our national well being. It is upon the character of a people, more than on anything else, the general good depends. No favourable outward circumstances, no wise organization, no well-ordered political constitution, can long uphold any community if the character of its members be godless and depraved. Sore calamity must come upon them, as it ever has, ere long time elapse. Of what amazing folly and sin, then, are they guilty who persecute the godly; who do their bad best to detach them from the faith, and to make them deny their Lord? It is an undermining of the very foundations of the house in which we live; a destruction of that upon which our all depends. Oh, let us be afraid, even if we be not servants of Christ ourselves, to do anything which would injure them or lessen their influence and power. Remember God hath said, "He that toucheth you toucheth the apple of mine eye." But, by surrender of yourself to Christ, come amongst them; be of their number; help forward their cause. Times of judgment are coming; the great judgment of all draws nigh. But "who shall stand in that day?" The reply is not, "No one shall be able to stand," for some, many, shall. All shall who have on them the mark of God, the sealing of the servants of God - that seal of the Holy Spirit "whereby we are sealed unto the day of redemption." Oh that that mark may be more and more manifest on us now! So shall our Lord be glorified; so shall our fellow men be blessed through us, whether they confess it or no; and so at last, when the consequences of ill doing have to be borne, and the harvest of sin is reaped, then shall judgment be restrained until we are gathered where harm can never come. - S.C.
I. THE FINAL TRIUMPHANT HOST IS INNUMERABLE. The former vision was limited, definite. It prepared the way for a larger view. The "little flock" has grown into an innumerable company. This is the true answer to the question, hitherto unanswered, "Lord, are there few that be saved?" To a Church in its incipient condition a small and feeble folk in the midst of ungodly thousands, the vision of a final host beyond count is of the utmost comfort. It has ever been so.
II. THE FINALLY TRIUMPHANT CHURCH IS REPRESENTED IN ITS WIDE COMPREHENSION. It is "out of every nation." This is the true vision to be held before the eyes of the Church in her missionary labours. All tribes and all peoples and all tongues shall be finally found amongst the faithful and elect children.
III. THE TRIUMPHANT CHURCH IS EXALTED TO THE UTMOST HONOUR. They stand "before the throne and before the Lamb." Thus is indicated their individual recognition; thus is fulfilled the word of their Lord's promise.
IV. THE CHURCH IS REPRESENTED IN ITS FINAL SANCTITY - "arrayed in white robes" - AND INVESTED WITH THE SYMBOLS OF TRIUMPHANT EXALTATION - " palms in their hands."
V. THE VISION REVEALS THE REDEEMED HOST ASCRIBING ITS REDEMPTION TO GOD AND THE LAMB. It is the becoming burden of the eternal song. All is "of him."
VI. THE CHURCH OF EARTH IS FOUND IN ALLIANCE WITH THE ANGELIC HOST OF HEAVEN. "All the angels were standing round about the throne."
VII. THE UNITED CHOIRS OF EARTH AND HEAVEN ASCRIBE TOGETHER ALL GLORY, HONOUR, MIGHT, MAJESTY, AND DOMINION UNTO GOD FOREVER AND EVER. Nothing more likely to comfort and uphold the Church struggling in the waves of bitter cruel persecution than this gracious vision. To the Church in all ages this has been the lofty reach of joyful anticipation. - R.G.
I. ITS NUMBERS ARE TOO GREAT FOR CALCULATION. "After this I beheld, and, lo, [those things I saw, and behold] a great multitude, which no man could number." The vastness of the population may be looked upon in four aspects. Here is:
1. A reproof to all sectarianism. Religious sects, which, alas! abound, even in Christendom, and which are a calumny on the gospel, nourish in the minds of their votaries the idea that heaven will be peopled mainly, if not entirely, by those within their own pale. Genuine religion knows nothing of sects. Men went to heaven by millions before churches or chapels existed.
2. An encouragement to all Christly work. The best men on earth are the men employed in a Christly spirit to make men Christly. They find the opposition so strong, the wicked so numerous, and their efforts apparently so unsuccessful, that they often lose heart. But let them realize that the human population of heaven, even in the days of John, was so vast that no arithmetic could calculate; that population has been increasing from that date to this, and will increase in future ages so that it may be that no human being will be found in the universe without a Christly heart. Hell is only a little cloud upon the azure of immensity, and that cloud may one day be blotted out; it is only one discordant note in the harmonies of God's great empire, and that note will ultimately be hushed in eternal silence.
3. A response to all philanthropic desires. In every human soul, I presume, there is an instinctive desire for the well being of the race. True, this Divine instinct, like all others, is not only universally perverted, but dormant and submerged in depraved passions; but it is there, and awaits a resurrection. Here is the response to such an instinct.
4. An attestation of benevolent Creatorship. There is atheology popular, even in England in these days, which propounds the belief that the millions of mankind are doomed to bondage and blackness and darkness forever. Such a damnable doctrine reveals the Creator as malevolent, and spreads a gloom of ghastly horror over all created things. No; love is the fontal source of all things.
II. ITS VARIETY INCLUDES ALL THE RACES OF MANKIND. "Of all nations [out of every nation], and kindreds [of all tribes], and people, and tongues." All the men of this earth have their own little theatres of life and action. They are divided by space, by time, by physical relationship, by culture, by national distinctions, and thus become barbarians one to another. Now, from all these scenes and departments of life the human population in heaven is made up. The human population in heaven is not known as Britons, or Frenchmen, or Germans, etc., nor as those of noble or ignoble blood, nor as those speaking this language or that, but as one grand confederation and brotherhood, in which all distinctions are lost. Learn here:
1. That our highest aim should be to become true men. We should struggle out of social castes, religious denominationalisms, and national distinctions, and become true men, for these men alone populate heaven.
2. That our highest love should be for men. Not love for lords or ladies, or nobles, or even for sages and poets, nor even for country, but for men; reverence man everywhere, in whatever land we find him, in whatever condition; respect him because he is a man. A true man is the grandeur creature under the heavens. Let us all become such, and respect such, and such only.
III. ITS GLORIOUSNESS TRANSCENDS ALL DESCRIPTION. "Stood [standing] before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with [arrayed in] white robes, and palms in their hands." Mark:
1. Their position. "Stood [standing] before the throne." This is an emblematic description of the highest dignity. Moral goodness, and that alone, is Divine dignity. The Divine throne is not material, it is spiritual; it is perfect moral excellence.
2. Their attire. "Clothed with [arrayed in] white robes." Life everywhere has its robes, its forms; robes which it makes for itself, which grow out of itself as foliage out of the vital sap. Souls have their robes, and holy souls have robes white with purity. All their manifestations are pure.
3. Their blessed rest. "Palms in their hands." The palms, Archbishop Trench considers, represents here not emblems of victory, but are emblems of rest.
IV. ITS ENGAGEMENTS ARE RAPTUROUS IN DEVOTION. "And cried [they cry] with a loud [great] voice, saying, Salvation to [unto] our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb," etc. No doubt the engagements of this vast human population in heaven are very varied, according to their personal idiosyncrasies, capacities, and proclivities. But in every department there is worship, the Supreme is adored - adored not formally or perfunctorily, but earnestly; they cry with a loud voice, "Salvation!" Restoration from their former earthly condition is the master theme. Ah! what is included in this salvation? It is restoration from ignorance to true knowledge, from impurity to holiness, from bondage to soul liberty, from selfishness to benevolence, from materialism to genuine spirituality, from the reign of wrong to the reign of right. This is the supreme theme of the saved in all worlds and forever, and ascribed to God and none other in heaven or earth. - D.T.
It is almost a universal word. It is told of two strangers meeting on board ship in Eastern seas, and ignorant of each other's language, that they at length discovered that they had two words in common. One was "Hallelujah," and the other "Amen." You will hear this sacred word in Mohammedan mosques from Calcutta to Morocco, in all the liturgies of Greek, Roman, and Anglican Christians, and there is no sect of Christians anywhere that does not use it. And it is a most ancient word. It has come down to us from the ancient Jewish people, and was heard amidst the rocks of Sinai in those far off days of old. It has been likened to one of those granite boulders which we sometimes find in the midst of a flat plain, and which has been borne along by old world glaciers and torrents, and carried far away from its native home. So this word has been borne down by the stream of time till it has reached our shores and this our day. But its importance lies in the great spiritual truths it teaches us. As -
I. GOD'S DESIRE FOR OUR RESPONSE. The word is associated perpetually with the utterance of prayer and the declaration of Divine truth. Now, God desires such response:
1. In worship. "Let all the people say, Amen." It is the people's word; was so not alone in the Jewish Church, but in the Christian as well. Hence St. Paul pleads for the use of plain language in worship, so that the unlearned may be able to say "Amen" at the giving of thanks. And in the early Church the acts of the presiding minister were not deemed complete without the assent of the people in their loudly expressed "Amen." Especially was this so in thanksgiving at the Lord's Supper. The whole congregation so said "Amen" that it was as a shout or cheer, and was heard far off, and like a peal of thunder reverberating through the spacious church. But it is the inward assent and response that is craved; the outward goes for very little if this be lacking. And how can it be present when we allow ourselves - as so many do - in listlessness and inattention and indifference? But if it be present, how precious, how uplifting, how full of help, that worship becomes to those who unite in it! Let us hold down our minds, and as Abraham drove away the birds which sought to devour his sacrifice, so let us drive away those flitting, wandering thoughts which are ever on the wing, and which destroy our sacrifice of prayer or praise. But in order to this inward assent and response, there must be like faith. If I do not believe in God as the heavenly Father, as my Father, how can I say "Amen" to prayer addressed to him? If I regard the Lord Jesus as no more than a noble hearted and saintly Jew, how can I prostrate myself in worship at his feet? But the chief hindrances to this inward response are not those of the intellect, but of the heart. It is not because we come to the house of God with our minds cobwebbed and confused with doubt, but rather because we come with hearts absorbed with worldly things, that the "Amen" God desires is not forthcoming, though our lips may loudly say, "Amen." What a falsehood the word becomes when our hearts are not in it!
2. In regard to the declaration of truth. It is given when the word comes with power. As when Chrysostom preached, the multitudes who thronged the vast church could not restrain themselves from shouts and cries and tears, so greatly were they moved. And the preaching of even false doctrine, as in the mosque at Mecca - so it has been related - yet when the people heartily believe, they are greatly moved by it, and break forth into loud cries of "Amen, amen!" under the spell of the preacher's voice, and by the power over them of the doctrines he and they alike believe. But God desires this response in regard to his truth; and again and again it has been given. At Pentecost; at Philippi, where the Lord opened the heart of Lydia, and then of the jailor; at Corinth, where Paul tells how unbelieving men came into the assembly, and, under the prophetic word, were convinced, and fell down and confessed the presence of God in their midst. But oh for much more of such response! As worship is no good without it, so neither is preaching, and nothing can compensate for it or be put in its place.
II. SINCERITY IS ESSENTIAL IN ALL OUR APPROACHES TO GOD. The word "Amen" comes from one which signifies "that which is reliable, that which can be trusted," as the massive foundation stone, the strong pillar, or other such sure support. Our Lord declares of himself, "I am the Truth;" and St. John tells of him as "the Amen," which means the same. And St. Paul tells how all God's promises are "Yea and Amen in Christ Jesus." And before his most weighty words our Lord was wont to utter his "Amen, amen," which in our versions is rendered "Verily, verily." At the end of the books of the Bible it is generally found, and everywhere it is the attestation of the truth of what has been or is to be said. And at the end of our prayers, it is as if we protested, "Lord God, I mean this." Formerly men headed their wills with the words, "In the name of God, Amen." But the meaning is ever the same - a declaration of truth and sincerity in regard to that which it precedes or follows. And hence our being commanded to say "Amen" shows God's demand for sincerity. They who worship him must worship him in truth. It is like signing our name - a thing we are very careful about in our secular affairs, knowing the responsibility it involves. Would that we were similarly thoughtful when we utter, as we often do, this solemn word "Amen"!
III. CHRIST IS THE ALONE GUARANTEE AND PLEDGE OF SUCCESS. For "Amen" is one of Christ's own names. The word was ever on his lips, and he is "the Amen." And his love and power lie underneath and behind it wherever it is sincerely uttered. It is a virtual calling upon him for his help - a call he will not disdain. If he be "the Amen" of our prayer and service, then he will make that real which we can only ask may be so. It is his endorsement of our petition. And when at length life's pilgrimage is (tone, and the shadows of our earthly days are deepening down into the night of death, if our hope and trust be in him who is "the Amen," then amidst the increasing gloom we shall see him coming to us, according to his word that so he would come; and our last word shall be, "Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus." - S.C.
I. BLESSEDNESS FOR WHICH THEY ARE PREPARED BY EARTHLY TRIBULATION. Even the rugged ways of earthly obedience lead to heaven's gates. But all toil and tribulation are o'er.
II. The final blessedness is BASED ON AN ATTAINED SANCTITY. "They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."
III. This blessedness INCLUDES:
1. Recognition. They are "before the throne of God."
2. Perpetual service. They serve God "day and night in his temple."
3. They enjoy the perfect protection of the Divine presence. He that sitteth on the throne shall spread his tabernacle over them.
IV. IT SECURES THEM EXEMPTION FROM THE SORROWS OF THE EARTHLY LIFE. "They hunger no more, neither thirst any more," nor shall the sun or any heat strike upon them.
V. THE FINAL BLESSEDNESS OF THE RIGHTEOUS HAS ITS FRUITION IN A GRACIOUS ALLIANCE WITH THE ETERNAL The Lamb "shall be their Shepherd," and shall guide them to the perpetual fountains of life and felicity; and God shall himself exempt them from all further sorrow or suffering. He "shall wipe away every tear from their eyes." Thus every trace of the tribulation of earth shall be removed; and blessedness of the highest possible character shall be the final lot of them who now endure for truth's sake. Thus in the midst of the earthly raging power is the persecuted Church of God assured, in all ages, of a final, a certain, and an ample recompense. - R.G.
I. THEIR EARTHLY LIFE WAS MARKED BY GREAT TRIAL. "And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? [these which are arrayed in the white robes, who are they?] and whence came they? And I said [say] unto him, Sir [my lord], thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came [come] out of [the] great tribulation." An elder in those realms - struck, it may be, with certain peculiarities in their appearance and worship - puts to John the interrogatory what they were, and whence they came, and the reply he receives is that they had come out of "great tribulation." Tribulation is the common lot of humanity, and ever the discipline of the good.
1. This should teach us contentment under our trials. "No temptation hath happened," etc.
2. This should inspire us with magnanimity under our trials. The tribulations are useful. Like the gales of the mariner, they bear us away from scenes on which our heart is set. The darkest thunder cloud terrifies but for an hour; it soon passes away, and leaves the air clearer and the heavens brighter than before.
II. THEIR CELESTIAL CIRCUMSTANCES ARE PRE-EMINENTLY GLORIOUS. "Have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." Look at:
1. Their appearance. In white robes, emblems of purity and conquest.
2. Their position. "They are before the throne." A throne is the emblem of regal authority, and before this throne we are always appearing in this life, but we are not conscious of it. Their employment. "Serve him day and night;" indicating the entire consecration of their time and powers. They serve him in every department of action. Serve him lovingly, wholly, and constantly.
4. Their companionship. "He that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among [spread his tabernacle over] them." They enjoy intimate communion with the Sovereign of all.
5. Their blessedness. "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; ... and God shall wipe away all tears." They are freed from evil, and brought into the full enjoyment of all blessedness.
III. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE EARTHLY AND HEAVENLY CONDITION IS ATTRIBUTABLE TO CHRIST. "They have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne." Three things are implied:
1. That they were originally polluted.
2. That the self-sacrificing love of Christ has a purifying influence.
3. That their cleansing by this influence had taken place when on earth.
CONCLUSION. Mark well the "therefore" of the text. Why are men so different in heaven to what they are on earth - in character, circumstances, spirit, different? Not because of the priestly services Of any sect, nor because of their own intellectual attainments, but because they have had their "robes washed in the blood of the Lamb;" it is because of Christ they are in heaven. - D.T.
I. WHO ARE IN HEAVEN. St. John tells us that:
1. They are a multitude. Heaven is no unpeopled place. It is the answer given by the Lord to the question his disciples asked him when he was on earth, "Are there few that be saved?" Then he did not see fit to answer it plainly, but here there can be no question as to the reply. For:
2. They are "a great multitude," one that "no man can number." How could it be otherwise? Would God have created and perpetuated the race of mankind knowing for how could he not know the issue of his own work, "Known unto God are all his works? " - that sin and Satan would win the most of them? How, in such case, could our Lord be said to have "destroyed the works of the devil"? Without doubt sin doth abound, but grace doth much more abound. If, at the time St. John was made glad through this vision, as we are through him, already there were in heaven this mighty multitude, what must they be now? and what will they be when the end cometh, and our blessed Lord hath delivered up the kingdom to the Father? They had already "begun to be merry" (Luke 15.). What must the holy mirth be now? and what shall it not be?
3. A miscellaneous multitude. "Out of every kindred and nation," etc. How greatly, then, do they err who think and teach that only those nations who here on earth have heard the joyful sound of Christ's holy gospel can furnish contingents to that redeemed throng upon whom St. John delightedly gazed! What did our Lord go to "the spirits in prison" for, as St. Peter tells us he did, if not to bring them there the joyful tidings which here on earth they had not heard? How little we yet comprehend of "the breadth, and length, and depth, and height" of the love of Christ! Surely this vision should help us to a larger understanding of that infinite love.
4. To them all life had been full of trouble. They had all of them "come out of great tribulation." Whilst we may not omit the final tribulation of which our Lord tells in Matthew 24., and to which the opening of the sixth seal refers, we cannot limit it to that. "Man is born to trouble;" he is "of few days, and full of misery." "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now." To how few would life be worth living were it not for he hope of a better one! But we are placed here as at a school, and the trials of life are the appointed methods of instruction whereby we unlearn evil and learn good. The poor often envy the rich; but if all were known, the lot in life, or rather ere eternal life be gained, of us all is much alike. "The rich and the poor meet together," and share in their common inheritance of trouble. But from all this they have now "come out," and are "before the throne of God and the Lamb."
5. They had all been lost but for Christ. For they had all sinned. None of them had kept their garments undefiled. But he who came "to seek and to save them that were lost" found them; by his Spirit drew them to himself; by his blood washed their sin-stained robes, and made them white; and now, all of them, not one excepted, are in heaven full of adoring gratitude to him who redeemed and saved them by his own blood. None are there on any other ground, nor can any ever be. On what, then, are we relying for the hope we all cherish of one day being where they are?
II. WHAT THEY DO THERE,
1. They celebrate the heavenly harvest home. They carry "palms in their hands," branches of the palm. No reference is here to heathen uses of the palm as symbol of victory and the like. But far sweeter and holier reminiscence is awakened. The scene before us is the antitype of the most joyous and inspiriting of all the observances of Israel - that of the Feast of Tabernacles. It was held at the close of the year's outdoor labours; with it the season of rest began. "All was safely gathered in." It commemorated God's care of them in the old wilderness days, and afterwards his continual care of them by the gifts of his providence. The feast was a most joyous one. The Jews said that he did not know joy who knew not the Feast of Tabernacles. One chief feature of the feast was the universal carrying of palm branches (cf. Nehemiah 8:14-17). Such is the scene from which the imagery of St. John here is drawn. It told of the troubles of the wilderness ended; the harvest home of the Church come. It speaks of everlasting joy.
2. They serve. Day and night in God's temple is this service rendered. But in another place St. John says, "I saw no temple therein;" and hence we must understand by the temple all heaven and earth, for all, as was the ancient temple, are to be filled with his glory. And as to the service, who can describe, who can limit, who can sufficiently set forth, its beneficence, its joy, its glory?
3. They show forth the praises of God and the Lamb. (Ver. 10.) Festal joy, service, worship, the worship which consists in heartfelt praise, - such are the occupations of heaven.
III. THEIR EXCEEDING BLESSEDNESS.
1. They want not. They neither hunger nor thirst.
2. They weary not, as in the travel and toil of the wilderness they had done, when the fierce heat of the sun smote them; and as in the hard toil of life.
3. They weep not. The poet Burns used to say he could never read this without tears. And when we think of what life is now - a place of tears - and that there there shall be none, one's heart may well rejoice. But there are also the unspeakable joys that come from:
4. The realized presence and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. He shall be as a Tent to cover them, as a Shepherd to feed them, as a Guide to lead them to fountains of living water.
CONCLUSION. Have we those we love in heaven? Rejoice concerning them. Are we on the way there ourselves? - S.C.