And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared of God…
This ver. 6 is repeated in ver. 14, as if calling special attention to the facts which it declares. But it cannot be understood, nor its lessons learnt, until sundry questions are asked and answered.
1. Who is the woman told of? She is the same as we read of in ver. 1, where she appears, not in distress, humiliation, and fear, fleeing with all speed from her dreaded foe, as is the case in this ver. 6; but in all august splendour, with radiant vestments and starry crown, with the moon as her footstool, and the glory of the sun shining upon her. But who is she? "The blessed Virgin Mary," answers the whole Catholic world without a moment's hesitation; and in innumerable paintings and sculptures, sermons and songs, they have so set her forth as she is represented here. And that there is no reference to the nativity and incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ in this chapter, he would be a bold man who would affirm; but that the mother of our Lord is mainly, and, much more, exclusively meant, we cannot think. What is further said concerning her is impossible as applied to the virgin mother. But, without question, Mary, "the handmaid of the Lord," was a true and beautiful type of that queenly woman who is portrayed in the opening verses of this chapter. And that woman is none other than the Church of God, she of whom it was so often said, "Thy Maker is thy Husband;" "Behold, I am married unto thee." And in this very book how often we read of" the Bride, the Lamb's wife"! Of that faithful Church of God under the ancient dispensation, Christ, according to the flesh, came. "Born of a woman, made under the Law."
2. What is meant by the "travail" of the woman at the hour of her child's birth? The sweet story of Christmas is indeed pointed at here; but much more than that. Are we not reminded of those words of Isaiah, "As soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth children;" and of St. Paul's words to the Galatians, "My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you"? And so did the ancient Church, with much spiritual travail, in earnest trust and fervent prayer, in patient hope, "waiting for the consolation of Israel," give birth to the Christian Church, of which Christ himself was the Head and Type and Lord. And then:
3. Who is, or what is, the great red dragon - that portentous monster whose hideous portrait and purpose are here revealed? Who is that who is as Pharaoh, watching for the birth of Israel's babes, in the far off evil days of their bondage in Egypt, that he might destroy them; or as Herod, inquiring diligently concerning the birth of the holy Child Jesus, that he might murderously rid himself of the possible rival "King of the Jews," ? who is meant here? And surely not Herod, nor, exclusively, Nero or Rome, but the prince of this world, Satan, the old serpent, the devil - he and none other - is the "great red dragon." "Red, as the colour of fire and as the colour of blood. Red, as the emblem of the waster and destroyer, as the emblem of him who 'was a murderer from the beginning.'" The dragon is that fabulous monster of whom ancient poets told as "huge in size, coiled like a snake, blood red in colour, or shot with changing tints," insatiable in voracity and ever athirst for human blood. In Psalm 91. it is linked with "the lion and adder, and the young lion" - all which, together with the dragon, God's servant should "trample underfoot." Fit emblem, therefore, for that cruel, bloodthirsty, and persecuting power with which Christ's Church has so often had to contend. Its variety of assault is told of by the "seven heads;" its huge strength, by the "ten horns;" its exalted authority amidst men, by the "seven diadems;" and its arrogant and audacious dominance, by "the tail which drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them down to the earth." Such is the Church's adversary, the devil, who, in St. John's day, assumed a form which justified this horrid portraiture, but who, in whatever form he may assume, from whichever of his "seven heads" his attack may spring, is ever, in spirit, purpose, and aim, one and the same, always and everywhere. We need not linger on the next question:
4. Who is the child that was born? That the Lord Jesus Christ is meant is, we think, incontestable; but as it is not of his life and ministry that this vision mainly tells, but of that Church in which and for which he was born, his sojourn and sufferings here are passed over. Only his entrance into and departure from this world are spoken of, and we are bidden contemplate him not here, but at the right hand of God, whither he ascended after his work on earth was done. But "the woman," and not her child, lingers here, exposed to the cruel assaults of her dread foe until the twelve hundred and sixty days, the period of time which we find so perpetually mentioned in this book, and which equals the three years and a half, the half of the complete number seven, and therefore type of a period not complete, but brief and broken, - until this time be done, the woman - the Church - must remain in the wilderness to which she has fled, or, rather, has been borne of God (ver. 14), and where she is sheltered from the power of her dread foe, and nourished by the ministers of God. It now only remains to ask:
4. What is this wilderness which is spoken of here? And the reply is that it is a type of the condition of the Church until the twelve hundred and sixty days, the time allotted for the Church's trial, be accomplished. And concerning that condition we would now speak - of its privations and perils, but, most of all, of its privileges.
I. ITS PRIVATIONS. No doubt there are these; the very name of "wilderness" indicates that there would be. We cannot have the good things of the world - "the flesh pots of Egypt" - and the good things of Christ too. We have to make choice between them. Making the best of both worlds is generally, if not always, a very doubtful procedure, though not a few professed Christians are forever attempting it. "How hardly shall they that have riches" - the specially good thing of this world - "enter into the kingdom of heaven!" So said our Saviour, and all experience confirms his word. For such things are but hindrances and impedimenta, that do but render our way through the wilderness yet more difficult, where it was difficult enough before. It is told of a great cardinal how, when in his last illness, he had himself wheeled into his sumptuous picture gallery, and as he wistfully looked at one art treasure after another, he said to a friend who was with him, "Ah, these are the things that make it hard to die!" No doubt it is so; and hence we are bidden go by the way of the wilderness, so that we may escape the besetments that would otherwise delay our progress. Nor may we look for rest here. The pilgrim may never here say to his soul, "Soul, take thine ease." Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come. There were Elims and other "quiet resting places" where, once and again, Israel was permitted to relieve the stress and strain of their long pilgrimage; but the common characteristics of their life was that of pilgrims, and their forty years' sojourn in the wilderness are spoken of, not as rest, but as their "wanderings." And, indeed, the providence of God is ever busy to prevent his people from settling down here as if it were their rest. Hence the disquiet and trouble, the "black care" which enters every abode - the palatial as well as the poorest; the loss and bereavement, all that which the Bible calls the "stirring up the nest," - all is for the purpose of reminding us that this is not our rest, and to induce us - so slow, generally, to be induced - to seek the better country, even the heavenly one. Oh that men would remember this, and reckon on all these things as the necessary, indispensable, and salutary, if severe, conditions of our present lot! They would then be far less hard to bear, and would more readily fulfil their mission, and serve as a spur to urge us forward in the heavenly road. And there are also -
II. PERILS BELONGING TO THIS PILGRIMAGE. One we have now glanced at - the persistent temptation to make the wilderness a home; to so bring the world into the Church, as that the Church itself should become a world; so to mingle the worldly with the religious life, that the latter should partake more of the former than the former of the latter. This is no imaginary peril, but one actual and visible, and yielded to in cases not a few. And another is the failure of faith. Ah, what trouble came to Israel of old from this one fatal fountain! Their miserable record of sinning and repenting, which went on almost from the day they left Egypt till the day they entered Canaan, caused that all that time should be branded with the reproachful name of "the day of provocation in the wilderness." And it was all owing to their persistent unbelief. And the like peril exists still. Without doubt the difficulties of unbelief are greater than those of faith; but these latter are so great and pressing, oftentimes, that faith well nigh suffers shipwreck. It is easy, comparatively, for the comfortable and well to do, in whose even tenor of life little occurs to raffle or disturb, much less distress - it is easy for such to say fine things about faith, and to censure and condemn those for not believing whose whole life is one long trial of faith; but let those who thus condemn be themselves likewise tried, and then it is probable that their condemnations will gradually change into comprehension, and that into sympathy with, and that into actual sharing of their brothers' unbelief. Yes, this is a real peril of our wilderness condition, and it is one which, if we do not conquer, it will conquer us. It is this which gives force to another peril - the temptation to go back to Egypt, to return to the world which we have avowedly forsaken. Israel was on the point of doing this, and often looked longingly back to the lives they had left. And some yield to it. How many are there who apostatize - leave the Church of Christ, and become, to all intents and purposes, what they were before they entered it, if not worse! Such are some of the perils of the wilderness, from all which may God in his great mercy deliver us! But -
III. THE PRIVILEGES and blessings of the wilderness condition are far more than either its privations or perils. Look back to that ancient record which tells of God's favour to Israel when they were in the wilderness, for the types of the like favour which he shows towards his people now.
1. Think of their security. The free air of the wilderness played upon them instead of the stifling heat of the valley of the Nile. They were on the high mountain plateau of Sinai, wandering over its grassy Alps, on which their flocks and herds freely fed, and over which the mountain breezes played. And they had seen their enemies dead on the seashore; they had no longer any fear of them. Their bondage was over, and they were free. And if we be the Lord's redeemed people, and have trusted in Christ our Passover, who was sacrificed for us, if we be of that blood besprinkled band, then we, too, are free. The guilt of sin, the tyranny and torture of sin, torment us no more. Ours is "the glorious liberty of the children of God," and we stand fast in "that liberty wherewith Christ has made his people free."
2. Unfailing sustenance, too, was theirs, and is ours. He fed them with angels' food; he gave them bread from heaven to eat. The manna fell morning by morning, and they all drank of the water from the smitten rock, which, for its perpetual, flee, full flowing streams, was so fit a type of Christ, that St. Paul says of it, "which rock was Christ." The antitype of all this in the spiritual sustenance - the bread of life, the water of life, the communion of his body and blood, and the manifold means of grace - are manifest, and his people know them, and rejoice in them day by day.
3. Guidance, too, was theirs. The pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, - "so it was always." And he guides us by his counsel. His Word is "a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path." By the promptings of his Holy Spirit, by the indication of his providence, he causes us to "know the way wherein we should walk," and makes "plain our path before our feet." None who seek that miss it; for those who "commit" their "way unto the Lord," he does "bring it to pass."
4. Instruction, moreover, was given Israel. God gave them his holy Law. To them were committed "the oracles of God." And so likewise to us, in his Word, the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make us "wise unto salvation."
5. Nor must we forget that great privilege - the presence of God with them. God "tabernacled amongst them." In that sacred tent, hovering over the ark of the covenant, rested the cloud of glory, the visible sign of him who "dwelt between the cherubim." St. John teaches us that this was the type of the yet more blessed fact, the incarnation of him who was "made flesh and tabernacled amongst us," and who now, by his Spirit, is with us evermore. In our hallowed moments of communion do we not know that he is with us? Cannot we see his face, hear his voice, feel the touch of his hand, behold the radiance of his countenance? It is so, and we know it.
6. Finally, they had a bright, sure, and ever-nearing hope of the rest God had promised them. Every day brought them "a day's march nearer home." More surely is this true of us than it was of Israel. For they were made, for their unbelief, to turn back and go over the way again, which can hardly be said of us. And ours is no earthly Canaan, but the heavenly rest, the "inheritance of the saints in light."
CONCLUSION. Shall, then, the privations or perils of the wilderness make us think lightly of these wondrous privileges; much less shall they make us abandon them? Ah no! Gladly will we bear all that now may pain or distress, comforted - as surely we ought to be - by the presence, the promise, and the power of God. - S. C.
Parallel VersesKJV: And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.