Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.
Hurt not the.., till we have sealed, etc. These words send back our thoughts to like words addressed to Lot at Sodom, by the angel who was urging him to flee therefrom. "Haste thee," said he, "escape thither [to Zoar]; for I cannot do anything till thou be come thither" (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.
Parallel VersesKJV: Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.