With this chapter commences a new series of events, extending through the entire gospel dispensation; the former series being terminated by the events of the last trumpet.
The heaven, where these great "wonders" are exhibited, must symbolize the theatre of their fulfilment -- the station to be occupied by the agents symbolized, which must be as conspicuous as heaven is relatively high above the earth.
The woman, according to the use of the symbol in other places, must be a representative of the church. As the harlot on a scarlet-colored beast (17:3), is a symbol of a corrupt and apostate church, so a virtuous woman is a chosen symbol of the true church.
The "Jerusalem which is above is the mother" of all true Christians (Gal.4:26); she is also "the bride, the Lamb's wife" (21:9); and "the remnant of her seed," are those "which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ," v.17. Her robe of light, her position above the moon, and her crown of stars, indicate her greatness and glory.
The epoch symbolized, as appears from the relative position of the woman and dragon, is evidently just prior to the first advent of the Messiah, when his coming was eagerly anticipated and ardently desired by the church, and the Roman power had thereby been excited to jealousy.
The church is the same in all ages, comprising only the true people of God; all of whom will have part in the first resurrection, 20:6. The Jewish church was continued by the breaking off of unbelieving branches, and the grafting in of believing Gentiles with believing Jews, who alike partake of the root and fatness of the same olive-tree, Rom.11:17.
Previous to the first advent, the Jewish church occupied a high political position, above that of the inferior officers of state, and was in the enjoyment of imperial favor. Patriarchs and prophets -- the messengers of the church -- were stars in her crown of rejoicing, 1:20. From the utterance of the prediction that the woman's seed should bruise the serpent's head (Gen.3:15), the coming of the promised deliverer was the great desire of the church. Even Eve exclaimed, at the birth of her first-born (literally), "I have gotten the man from the Lord," Gen.4:1. For his coming,
"Kings and prophets waited long
They "inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what, or what manner of time the spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow," 1 Pet.1:10, 11. "Many righteous men desired" to see his day (Matt.13:17); Abraham rejoiced and was made glad at its prospect, when in the distant future (John, 8:56); and Hezekiah lamented that because of death he should not see "the Lord in the land of the living," Isa.38:11.
The seventy weeks indicated to the Jews the time of "the Messiah, the Prince," Dan.9:26-27. When these were near their termination, to the pious and devout Simeon who was "waiting for the consolation of Israel," it "was revealed by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ," Luke 2:25, 26. And the opinion was so general, that when the Baptist preceded him, "the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ or no," Luke 3:15. This expectation is testified to by the Jewish historians Philo and Josephus; and it was that which so troubled Herod, when wise men came, saying, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews?" Matt.2:1-3.
The belief that some remarkable personage was about to appear in Judea, was not confined to Palestine, but extended to Egypt, Rome, Greece, and wherever the Jews were scattered abroad. Says Suetonius, a Roman historian: "An ancient and settled persuasion prevailed throughout the East, that the Fates had decreed some one to proceed from Judea, who should attain universal empire." And Tacitus, another Roman historian, says: "Many were persuaded that it was contained in the ancient books of their priests, that at that very time the East should prevail, and that some one should proceed from Judea, and possess the dominion."
The great red dragon sustains a relation to the woman, analogous to that sustained by the nondescript beast (of Dan.7:7), to the saints of the Most High; and his position respecting the man-child is like that of the exceeding great horn (Dan.8:9), to the Prince of princes, Dan.8:25. Like the beast referred to, the dragon has ten horns; and its characteristics indicate that it also symbolizes the Roman empire, -- "the fourth kingdom upon earth," Dan.7:23. The dragon is a monster serpent. "That old serpent" who seduced Eve (Gen.3:5), "called the devil" (Matt.4:1-12), and "Satan" (2 Cor.2:11), "who deceiveth the whole world," is an appropriate representative of Rome.
The "head" of a beast, sustains a relation to the beast analogous to that of the government to the people of an empire. It is that by which the beast is directed and governed. When distinguished from the body of the beast (Dan.7:11), according to the analogy, it must be understood as a symbol of the directing and controlling power, in the kingdom indicated by the beast. Several heads on the same beast, on this principle, must indicate the several forms of government to which the nation is subject. As these cannot be contemporary, like the divisions of a kingdom represented by the horns, they must be successive. To suppose they represent different governments, destroys the analogy, and makes them separate beasts, instead of heads of the same beast; and no government can be subject to more than one head at the same time.
The "seven heads" of the dragon, then, symbolize the directing and controlling powers which ruled the Roman empire, -- the seven successive forms of government under which it existed. Rome was founded about B. C.753, from small beginnings, on the summit of Mount Palatine, and gradually increased in extent, till it spread over seven hills: the Palatine, Capitoline, Aventine, Esquiline, Coelius, and Quirinalia; and its population of about three thousand in the time of Romulus, increased to about two millions in the time of Augustus Caesar.
Previous to the subversion of the empire, Rome existed under different forms of government, as follows: --
1. Kingly. -- The first government established was a monarchy, and lasted two hundred and forty-four years, under seven kings, viz., Romulus, Numa, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Martius, Tarquin Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquin the Proud, who was afterwards expelled from the throne. This was denominated the infancy of the Roman empire.
2. Consular. -- In B. C.509, the constitution of Rome was remodelled, and the executive power committed to two consuls, to be elected annually. This commenced the "Commonwealth of Rome."
3. Dictatorial. -- The office of dictator was the highest known in Rome, and was only resorted to in cases of emergency. He was elected for six months only, and usually resigned his authority, which, for the time, was nearly absolute, as soon as he had effected the object for which he was chosen.
4. Decemviral. -- In B. C.451, the government was so changed, that, instead of the two consuls, the government was committed to ten men, to be chosen annually, and jointly exercise the sovereign power. After two years the decemvirs were banished, and the consular government was restored.
5. Tribunitial. -- In B. C.426, Rome having become a military state, military tribunes were substituted for the consular power, till B. C.366, when the latter was again restored.
6. Pagan Imperial. -- With the battle of Actium, B. C.31, the Roman Commonwealth terminated; and Augustus Caesar united in his own person not only the offices of Consul, Tribune, &c., but also that of Supreme Pontiff, -- the head of the pagan hierarchy. This last office, says Gibbon, "was constantly exercised by the emperors." Thus were united the highest civil and ecclesiastical powers of the state.
7. Christian Imperial. -- In A. D.312, the government was revolutionized, by the accession of Constantine to the throne. He effected important changes in the relations of the people to the monarch, opposed idolatry, and by the introduction of Christianity, effected a political change in the laws and administration of the empire. This continued, with a slight interruption under Julian the Apostate, till the subversion of the Western empire, A. D.476.
Mr. Elliott, in explanation of the first five heads, says: "I adopt, with the most entire satisfaction, that generally-received Protestant interpretation, which, following the authoritative statement of Livy and Tacitus (the latter great historian, St. John's own contemporary), enumerates kings, consuls, dictators, decemvirs, and military tribunes, as the first five constitutional heads of the Roman city and commonwealth; then as the sixth, the Imperial head, commencing with Octavian." -- Horae Apoca., vol. III., p.106, 4th ed.
Those heads are shown to symbolize seven forms of government, by the explanation that "they are seven mountains where the woman sits on them [mountains also symbolizing governments], and are seven kings," 17:9, 10. And they are shown to be successive, by the fact that, when John wrote, the first five had passed away, one only then existed, -- the Pagan Imperial, -- and the other head was then in the future, 17:10.
The "ten horns" also symbolize kings, or dynasties; but, unlike the heads, instead of being successive, they are contemporaneous. According to the explanation, they had received no kingdom when John wrote, and were all to exercise power at the same time: "The ten horns which thou didst see, are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom; but they receive power as kings, one hour with the wild beast," 17:12. These will be more particularly noticed in connection with the thirteenth chapter, and there shown to be the ten contemporaneous governments which succeeded to the dominion, on the subversion of the Western Empire. See p.169.
The "seven crowns" on the heads of the dragon, indicate that the acts here symbolized, would be fulfilled during the period when the sovereignty of Rome should be vested in the forms of government symbolized by the heads, and not during that symbolized by the horns.
The woman appeared in the symbolic heavens anterior to the dragon. Prior to the birth of Christ, the church was conspicuous and honored. The sacrifices which smoked on Jewish altars, were offered to Jehovah. The subjects of the divine government conducted their service with all the splendor imparted by the Jewish ritual. Royalty was an appendage of the nation: the sceptre did not depart from Judah, nor a law-giver from between his feet, till Shiloh came, Gen.49:10. By an alliance with the Romans, B. C.135, Rome took its position in the presence of the woman.
The first act of the dragon was by a sweep of its tail to draw down one-third of the stars, and to cast them to the earth. This was before the birth of the man-child. After Rome attained the supremacy, Judea proportionably suffered. Her glory was measurably dimmed by many indignities before her subjugation to Rome was consummated. Jerusalem was repeatedly besieged. At one time (B. C.94) Alexander Jannaeus slew six thousand persons on account of their meeting in the temple at the feast of tabernacles. In B. C.63, Judea was conquered by Pompey, the Roman general. In B. C.54, Crassus plundered the temple of Jerusalem. In B. C.37, Jerusalem was taken, after a siege of six months. Various other difficulties occurred between Judea and Rome, previous to the Saviour's advent, on account of which she was greatly depressed and humbled, so that it might with propriety be said that one-third of her stars were cast to the ground. This depression was one great reason why the church within her borders looked so earnestly for a Deliverer.
The Man-child is the one "who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron," according to the prediction of Christ in the second Psalm; which proves its reference to the Saviour.
The purpose of the dragon to destroy the child of the woman as soon as it should be born, in accordance with the view here taken, would symbolize the purpose of the Roman power, by the agency of Herod the Roman governor in Judea, to destroy the infant Saviour. "When he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem, in Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet." And Herod "sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men," Matt.2:1-16. Thus Rome sought to slay the Saviour as soon as he was born; but Joseph took the child and fled into Egypt. Afterwards Christ was crucified by Roman soldiers, and deposited in the tomb, arising again the third day.
His being caught up to God and to his throne, symbolizes his resurrection from the dead, and ascension from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:9), to the right hand of the Majesty on high; "whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things," Ib. 3:21.
The flight of the woman into the wilderness, denotes her descent from the conspicuous position she had occupied, and the dispersion of the church. With the crucifixion of Christ, Judaism was no longer the casket in which the church was enshrined. It left its place in the moral heavens, and the followers of Christ were scattered abroad, Acts 8:1-4. Thus she virtually fled into the wilderness -- into the condition, where, subsequently, she was to be nourished for 1260 prophetic days.
It is objected to the application of the man-child to the Saviour, that it should be prophetic, and not retrospective. This objection would be equally valid to the application of the symbolic heads, against which it is never urged. That which is retrospective, to be appropriately symbolized, must be in harmony with, and explanatory of other parts. Thus, by the man-child and previous travail of the woman, she is identified, and her relation to the dragon established. No other subject could fulfil the conditions of the symbol, for of no other was it predicted: "Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. -- Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. -- Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel," Psa.2:8-10.