THE SEVEN-SEALED ROLL AND THE
The CREATION song of the preceding chapter is now to be
blended with grander anthems, the song of PROVIDENCE and the song of GRACE.
These are evoked by new objects or figures in the sublime Heavenly Vision.
The Almighty Father, seated on the throne of jasper and carnelian, has,
lying on His open right hand a Roll, similar to what was used by the
Prophets in recording their divine utterances. It was the Roll of
Providence, the symbolic Volume of the Divine counsels, containing the
prophetic history of the Church, and the destinies of the nations to the end
of time. This roll was "written on both sides"—that is, not only on the
upper side which met the Holder's eye as it was unwound from its cylinder;
but on the back also it was filled with lettering. There were no blanks
in it—no vacant spaces that would admit of new entries. This crowding
of the writing indicated exhaustive fullness. It was, moreover,
"sealed (lit. "sealed down") with seven seals"—again the mystic
memorial symbol of completeness, betokening, in another way, that it formed
an all-comprehensive record and register of the will and ways of the
Supreme, its contents reaching onwards through the world's six work-days to
the great seventh day—the Sabbath of eternity.
The sealing further implied that its contents were
sacredly locked and concealed from public gaze; and yet, lying on the
open palm of the hand indicated also that there was no unwillingness on the
part of the enthroned One to divulge its contents, if any worthy to
undertake the task could be found.
"A mighty angel" appeals to his fellows. He asks if there
be no potent arm that can wield its strength in breaking open these seals
and revealing the hidden mysteries? He proclaims with a loud voice, "Who is
worthy to open the roll and to open the seals thereof?" There is silence in
Heaven. Amid the adoring ranks around, no one responds to the summons. None
in the heights of glory—none on the platform of earth, none "under the earth
(that is, in the deeps of Hades—the region of departed spirits) were able to
open the roll, neither to look thereon."
The awe-struck and wondering Seer "weeps" at the
confessed failure. He had received the invitation and assurance, on the
first opening of the heavenly door, "Come here, and I will show you
things which must be hereafter." Is He, whose name was "Faithful and True,"
to belie His own promise and to defraud His servant of his fond expectation?
John knew the priceless value of what that Book contained. Let only the
seals be broken, the parchment unfolded, and a flood of light would be
thrown on an enigmatical future; many an anxious fear and foreboding would
be stilled; many a perplexity solved. Whether in dark characters of mourning
and woe; or in golden and silver lettering, he knew there would be a
glorious revelation of Truth and Righteousness, and a sublime "vindication
of the ways of God to men."
What a boon would such a Revelation be to the Church in
every coming age! But when the proclamation of the herald Angel is unanswered—the
secrets of the scroll likely to remain locked in impenetrable mystery, the
tears of the lonely man on his lonely island begin to flow, tears akin to
those of Mary Magdalene when she stood by the blank sepulcher "weeping,"
mourning over the apparent ruin and frustration of her fondest hopes. This
is surely a touching episode in the apocalyptic drama! the Apostle, in his
moment of glowing rapture at the very gate of Heaven, with a tear, (or
rather a flood of tears, for he 'wept much',) furrowing his cheek, in
the sincere sadness of baffled and disappointed expectations.
It reminds us of yet another kindred weeper, whose
hero-heart was proof against all cowardly weakness, but who was similarly
moved when he heard of those who were enemies to the cross of Christ. Paul
was jealous for the Cross and the Sacrifice; John for the Crown and Kingdom
of their common Lord and Master. Both were in unity in their unselfish
interest for the advancement of His cause, the vindication of His name, the
promotion of His glory! Yes! it is indeed an impressive picture to see men
who never wept for themselves weeping for that which was to them dearer than
self—dearer than life. It lets us into the tender agony of great souls.
We have heard of patriots mourning for their Fatherland—noble natures
throbbing at the contemplation of iron-handed tyranny and cruel wrong—men
whose brave spirits would never permit them to wince or falter under the
threat of torture or in the storm of battle, but who could only speak
through tears and choked utterance in proclaiming their country's woes.
Such too is the anguish of earnest Christian
patriots—such the tears shed by them over the misapprehension and
misinterpretation of the Divine ways and counsels, the rejection of the
Divine offers of mercy through stern unbelief and defiant pride. Such ought
to be the feelings and emotions of every true soldier of the cross as he
sees thousands perishing around him—the Gospel-trumpet sounding its warnings
apparently in vain—honest efforts apparently frustrated and baffled—all a
gigantic failure. We lately heard of one of the standard-bearers in the
Missionary battlefield—a noble and a true man—weeping like a little child,
because the work he had so near his heart seemed to be progressing so
tardily—the little done, the much undone—the colossal walls of heathendom
frowning defiance on his puny endeavors, and he left to cry through his
tears and prayers, "Lord, how long?"
Would that there were more of a similar spirit! And such
there would be, were the surpassing grandeur and importance of
that work and its awful responsibilities realized as they ought. There is a
saying of one of our old divines, that "the sins of men are enough to make
devils triumph and angels weep." If a tear can thus be said to befit the eye
of an angel-spectator of earth's depravity and corruption, what should it be
in the case of those, who, partakers of the frailties and sins of humanity,
are themselves called as God's witnesses and ambassadors to stand between
the living and the dead!
It well becomes all Churches and all their members, from
time to time, as if it were at Heaven's opened door, thus to ponder the
shortcomings of the past; opportunities of good neglected; souls around
still perishing; God's name blasphemed; Christ's cause dishonored; vice
unrebuked; infidelity rampant; and yet Death, Judgment, and Eternity at
hand! May God kindle some of the fervid spirit which dictated the
impassioned agonizing declaration of the Prophet of Judah—"Oh, that my head
were as waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and
night for the slain of the daughter of my people!"
But to return. The aged Apostle's 'much weeping' is
immediately changed into joy and triumph. One of the Elders—one of those
forming the redeemed white-robed multitude—bids him dry his tears—for some
Being had been found infinitely worthy "to open the Book." John was at this
time the most illustrious believer in the Church on earth—a giant among his
fellows. Few if any in Heaven had been so honored as he; yet an unknown
member of the Church triumphant is now his instructor; showing that there
are revelations of truth made to the glorified which are withheld from those
who, as ministering priests in the lower sanctuary, are still compassed with
infirmity; so that it may be said with regard even to the most advanced in
knowledge and faith and love among the latter, "He who is least in the
kingdom of Heaven is greater than he."
But who is He who is thus discovered to be worthy? When
all Heaven is silent, who is the favored one found equal to the task? It is
"the Lion of the tribe of Judah." The Lion—the victorious symbol of the
favored and the royal tribe, of whom the dying Patriarch thus spoke in his
farewell benedictions: "Judah is a young lion that has finished eating its
prey. Like a lion he crouches and lies down; like a lioness—who will dare to
rouse him?" But one of the twenty-four elders said to me, "Stop weeping!
Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David's throne, has
conquered. He is worthy to open the scroll and break its seven seals." It is
Christ—He who was alike of the tribe of Judah and of the lineage of David,
that is pronounced worthy to be the unfolder of the hidden mysteries.
But He is so by conquest. It is as the Divine
Vanquisher of sin and death He has qualified Himself (so to speak) to be the
exponent and interpreter of the Divine counsels. "It is," says Augustine,
"by reason of His humiliation as man, that Christ received the roll, and not
by reason of His Godhead." It is as the Mediator of His Church He has the
right and prerogative to break the seals and unfold the contents.
John gazes upwards in joyful expectancy. But what sudden
change has taken place in the mystic figurations? He turns his eye in the
direction of the Throne, where the worshipers already described are bending
before some One adorable object. That object was seen "standing in the midst
of the Throne" (or rather perhaps "in front of the Throne"); and from this
time onwards, occupies the most conspicuous place—the central point in the
Heavenly Visions. The Apostle looks for the majesty of Judah's Lion. He
expects to see some Being of unutterable might. But—strange thing for
Heaven!—the object of adoration is no longer symbolized by the Lion, but by
A LAMB. The word used in the original is also remarkable. It is "a little
Lamb"—a word peculiar to the Apocalypse, occurring here alone in this
diminutive form in the New Testament, with the single exception of its use
in Christ's charge to Peter in the closing chapter of John's Gospel, where
he employs the same expression, "Feed my little lambs."
More than this, the Lamb of the vision appears covered
with wounds and blood-scars, as if recently killed in sacrifice; and the
closing ascription of the heavenly throng is not "worthy is the Lion
that has conquered"—but "worthy is the Lamb that was
slain!" What is this but the Divine Redeemer proclaiming, in expressive
similitude, both the tenderness of His nature and the perpetual efficacy
of His mediatorial sacrifice and work, in the midst of the Church
purchased by His precious blood?
In conjunction, however, with these symbols of meekness
and gentleness, humiliation and suffering, there are two others added of
omnipotence and omniscience. That little Lamb had "seven horns" (horns—the
invariable emblem of kingly power) and "seven eyes," which are interpreted
as "the Seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth"—the Holy Spirit,
in the sevenfold symbol of perfection and manifold operation, sent forth
according to Christ's own promise as His Glorifier and Testifier.
All seems now ready for the longed-for disclosure. This
glorious Being "came and took the book out of the right hand of Him who sat
upon the Throne." The Apostle, we may imagine, is all eagerness to listen to
the stupendous revelations of the future which are to be made on the
breaking of the seals. But he must for a time at least suspend his anxiety
until two grand doxologies are sung—two new and distinct ascriptions of
praise welcoming the approach of the Lord of Providence and the Lord of
Grace, who was thus alone found worthy. "And when he had taken the scroll,
the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the
Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of
incense, which are the prayers of the saints." We have in these the twofold
symbols of praise and prayer. The Harps, whether gold or silver, were
for purposes of adoration, while the golden bowls were filled with the
prayers of the Saints (or literally, of "the holy ones") of earth. Beautiful
picture! the prayers and cries from the sorrowing, suffering Church below,
are received into these golden bowls by "the ministering ones," and placed,
as we shall afterwards find, in the hands of the One only Intercessor, to be
perfumed with the incense of His adorable merits.
Meanwhile, the first part of the "new song" rises from
the conjoined voices of these Saints and living Beings; "new," because
evoked by the sudden appearance in the midst of the Throne of the Unfolder
of the roll, the majestic Expositor of the otherwise inscrutable counsels.
The words sung are these—"You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its
seals, because You were slain, and with Your blood You purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to
be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the
earth." "We shall reign on the earth;" not, as in our rendering, in the
future tense, as if some glorious kingdom were in store—but it is a present
reign. Cheering, as it has been observed, must the utterance have been to
the Apostle, that even that afflicted, despised, persecuted remnant called
'the Church on earth,' was recognized in Heaven as a reigning
power—exercising dominion and lordship through its great Head, anticipatory
of that period when, as King of kings and Lord of lords, He will put all
things under His feet, and vindicate His claim to universal sovereignty as
celebrated in the fourfold enumeration of "every kindred, and tongue, and
people, and nation!"
Such was the First song, or the first chorus of
the "new song." But it was sung by a comparatively limited number of
representative voices. The vast myriads of unfallen angels—the originals of
Heaven, if we may so call them—had taken no part in it. There is a pause;
and then we listen to a strain sublimer still, which may be designated
the Great Redemption anthem joined in by the entire heavenly host. We
shall do no more than give its own grand words without comment. It is a
mighty volume of praise, which sends its multiplying echoes out to the very
circumference of being. Not now the few favored representatives—but the
countless multitudes of angels, principalities, and powers, in their endless
concentric circles, have gathered to this great inauguration festival, to
present their lofty homage and adoration to the slain Lamb.
We seem to realize for the first time the sublime meaning
of the saying, "Inhabiting the praises of eternity;" for the wide vault and
circuit of heaven, the vast corridors of limitless space and time, are
crowded with ministering spirits, and have become vocal with song. This is
their doxology, "Then I looked again, and I heard the singing of thousands
and millions of angels around the throne and the living beings and the
elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus: "The Lamb is worthy—the Lamb who
was killed. He is worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and blessing." And then I heard every creature in heaven
and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They also sang: "Blessing
and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to
the Lamb forever and ever."
Such is the ascription. It has waxed louder and louder
like the noise of many thunderings; the waves of sound have extended
themselves in ever grander and increasing cadence until they reach the
outskirts of being. Then gradually receding, they seem to rock themselves to
rest; and the terminating strain is given by those who struck at first its
key note—" And the four living creatures said AMEN." Then all is silence.
The twenty-four Elders prostrate themselves in silent adoration, and worship
Him who lives for the ages and the ages!
There are many thoughts, alike of grandeur and comfort,
which crowd upon us on a review of this vision. We must be content with
alluding to the two leading consolatory ones. The first embodies the same
truth we met with in the preceding chapter, but which is more fully
developed here—that the roll of Providence is in the hands of Jesus.
There are times, in the history of the world, we spoke of in connection with
the former vision, when, amid political complexities—the prevalence and
triumph of human tyranny and wrong—still more, times in our individual
experiences, in the mysteries of daily life—amid startling providences or
baffling dispensations, that the old moorings threaten to give way, or have
momentarily given way, and we feel ourselves drifting out on the cheerless
sea of human doubt and distrust—when all is dark around, no rift in the
cloud—no star in the midnight sky—and in the anguish of bitter unbelief we
are tempted to mutter the querulous complaint, "Where is now my God?" Or, if
that God lives and reigns, does He live as a God of terror? does He answer
to the fire-god of the Phoenician in his Baal-worship, or to the Jupiter-god
of the Roman, armed with the thunderbolt and forked lightning? or, in the
phantasies of a later philosophy, has He abdicated His throne, and left man
and his fortunes to wild chance, to be driven, as things of fate,
here and there on the fitful waters—the vessel without a pilot, the world
without a ruler?
No! the roll of Providence, containing the fortunes of
the nations as well as all that concerns His Church and people, is in the
keeping of the Christ of Calvary. "The Lord is King! He sits between the
Cherubim!" It is He who mingles every drop in the cup, and lights every
furnace, and orders every trial, and draws every tear. Oh! what would many
have been in those hours of gloomy despair, when the props of existence were
tottering underneath them—what they thought were life's strongholds giving
way like the yielding ice beneath their feet—what would they have been, but
for the sustaining assurance that that roll of human destiny is in
the hand of the Lord who died for them!
We can now understand the reason of this strange, mingled
symbolism—the appropriate figure of the Lion of the tribe of Judah in
conjunction with a slain Lamb—that anomaly in Heaven—the memorials of
pain and suffering in a place where sorrow never enters and suffering is
unknown. Is it not to tell us of a blessed union of might and tenderness;
that we may confidently commit our everlasting destinies to Him; for as the
Lion of the tribe of Judah He is able to defend us—as the slain Lamb
He is able to sympathize with us? What more could we desire, than
this combination of Omnipotence and Love—the greatness of Godhead
and the sympathy of Humanity in the Person of the now Living One, who
once was dead? Let the seals be opened and the vials descend! We will trust
in Him who alone is found worthy to open the book; add our "Amen" to that of
the four living creatures; and with the Elders fall down and worship Him who
lives forever and ever!
The second memorable thought or reflection here suggested
is, that it was the SLAIN Lamb in the midst of the Throne, who summoned
forth this loud anthem peal. It was sung by myriads of myriads; and
among those myriads, by the lips of unsinning Angels who had no personal
interest in His great atoning work. How much more surely ought that amazing
sacrifice, thus symbolized, to evoke our loftiest praises and stir our
deepest gratitude and devotion! Let us fondly grasp the magnificent truth in
all its wondrous reality—not diluting it to square and dovetail with modern
theologies—not eliminating from it its grandest mysteries because they are
mysteries; but rather content to receive them and rejoice in them as
stupendous mysteries of love: "Christ crucified! the power of God."
While we delight to adore Him as the Lion of the
tribe of Judah—while earth's lowly praises blends with the grander
symphonies of the skies, "You are the King of glory, O Christ! You are the
everlasting Son of the Father!"—let the ever-present recollection of His
anguish, His bleeding love and atoning sacrifice, give deeper fervor and
intensity to the prayer—"O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the
world, grant us your peace! O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the
world, have mercy upon us!"
It is the cross of Christ, the everlasting love of
God in 'so' loving the world, which will form the theme of eternity.
Angel-intellect from every corner of the universe of being, will stoop over
the fathomless abyss and exclaim, "Oh, the depth!" Not to Elders alone, with
their white clothing and redemption-crowns and golden vials full of
incense—the representatives of the ransomed—but "to principalities and
powers in heavenly places, will be made known by the Church" (through the
glorified Person and adorable work of her living Head and King), "the
manifold wisdom of God."