Revelation 6:9-17

In the previous chapter we considered Creation's cry for the coming of her great King, and the visions accompanying the opening of the first four seals of the prophetic roll. The symbolic personages revealed to the Apostle, at all events in the three latter, represented the variety of appalling judgments which were to be visited on the earth and on its guilty inhabitants. But what, meanwhile, of the Church? It is this, under a new and peculiar figure, to which his attention is next called on the opening of the Fifth seal.

The locality of the scenic representation is changed. While it was athwart the broad earthly landscape, that John, from his place at the heavenly vestibule, had seen these strange equestrian riders go forth on their several commissions—it is now inside the celestial sanctuary his eye is turned. At the base of an altar, similar to that with which he was familiar in the courts of the earthly Jerusalem, he listens to voices proceeding from some shadowy human forms. But not, as he had shortly before heard, uttering melody and praise, but rather a loud wail of suffering—not the voices of the living, but, if the expression can be used, the voices of the dead. It was the cry "of those who were slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held"—a cry extending from the death of the proto-martyr Stephen, onwards through long gloomy centuries of persecution and hate.

Time would fail to enumerate the voices which mingled in that cry—to rehearse the entries in that illustrious roll of heroic endurance—the martyrs of the Roman catacombs, who have left the significant signature of their sufferings on monumental tablets in these subterranean vaults—their blood thus crying from beneath the ground—the martyrs of Lyons in the age of Irenaeus—the Waldenses and Albigenses of subsequent centuries, the devoted thousands in the valleys of Perosa and San Martino, or amid the savage wilds of Dormilleuse—the Huguenots of a still later epoch—those involved in the massacres of St. Bartholomew, the fires of Smithfield, the secret tortures of dungeon and inquisition; which no human pen was ever allowed to describe, down to the Madagascar martyrs of our own century—all who have perished by the sword or the axe, the flame and faggot, the hemlock and poison-cup, the cross and the stake; hurled from the precipice, or torn amid the savage shouts of the amphitheater; all who may have a similar legacy of suffering bequeathed to them in the Church of the future.

These martyrs are represented as having their blood, like that of the sacrificial victims of old, poured out at the foot of the altar. Not, be it observed, the golden altar of incense of a subsequent chapter; but the great brazen altar of burnt-offering, where bloody offerings were alone presented. The figuration is in accordance with the literal words of the Prince of Martyrs—the great Apostle himself, when, in anticipation of a violent death, he thus with calm fortitude asserts his preparation, "I am now ready to be offered," (or literally to "pour out" my life—my blood—as an sin-offering.

From the blood of these martyrs in the vision, flowing at the base of the altar, there is a petitioning voice represented as rising loud before Him who sits on the throne, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before You judge the people who belong to this world for what they have done to us? When will You avenge our blood against these people?" It is of importance, however, that we note a peculiarity in the imagery; lest by a false interpretation we be led to regard this as an unworthy cry of vengeance uttered by the disembodied souls of the departed, an imprecation unbefitting the lips of the followers of Him whose dying prayer was that of forgiveness for His enemies—unbefitting the crowned victors who bore their sufferings so meekly, and who might well now forget the fiery chariot which bore them to so glorious a heaven.

Were it no more than to bring the present vision into harmony with subsequent ones, it could not be the souls of the martyred witnesses (in the sense of their glorified spirits) which are here represented as uttering the loud petition to an avenging God. For these, in the very next chapter, are spoken of as having already entered upon their state of exalted bliss, amid the crowd of jubilant worshipers, before the Throne and the Lamb, "clothed with white robes, and palm branches in their hands." It is rather by a bold and beautiful symbol—their natural or animal life, "the blood, which is the life thereof"—sending up its dumb inarticulate protestation into the ear of a Holy Judge. They are themselves (their immortal spirits), as we have just said, above and beyond all such wail of earthly suffering. But at the base of that heavenly altar, on which they are beautifully represented as having yielded their lives in sacrifice to God, they have left their own blood-drops to plead in silence. "How long, O Lord?" "O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongs; O God, to whom vengeance belongs, show Yourself!"

Meanwhile it is added, "White robes were given to each of them." These white robes are generally taken, simply as the evidences of justification and acknowledged righteousness before God. But when Bengel calls the "white stole, or long white vestments, an excellent ornament and high honor," he indicates what we think is a truer and more appropriate meaning. May we not regard them as the distinctive badges of martyrdom and suffering—glistering attire superadded to the "white robes" common to the whole Church triumphant specified in a future vision—heavenly decorations of peculiar and pre-eminent glory, like the stars in the crown elsewhere spoken of, which are given as the distinguishing mark of those who 'turn many to righteousness'?

The cry from that altar-base was not to be in vain. It is abundantly answered, in the subsequent figures, amid the soundings of the trumpets and the outpouring of the vials. God's law of righteous retributive vengeance can admit of no relaxation, either in the case of nations or individuals. Persecuting Pagan-Rome, and persecuting Papal-Rome would in due time have their scourges, to verify and ratify the truthfulness of the saying, "With the measure you use, it will be measured to you." "Shall not God avenge His own elect, who cry to Him day and night?" said One greater than the greatest of these martyred dead. "I tell you He will avenge them, and that speedily." The "souls," however, in the vision, were told meanwhile to wait for the completion of that noble army of martyrs. It was said unto them that "they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled."

Such then is the vision accompanying the opening of the Fifth seal, the heavenly altar of sacrifice, and the martyrs' cry.

We now turn to THE SIXTH SEAL. It may deliberately be affirmed that there is no word-painting (if the term may, without irreverence, be used of inspired writing) so grand and impressive in all Scripture, as this "memory of Patmos." The most daring of modern imaginative artists has selected it as his greatest work—although his treatment, however powerful, is confessedly tame side by side with the majestic language of the Apostle-exile. As in the preceding vision, John's eye had been abstracted from the equestrian symbols of the four first seals, to gaze on a great altar of sacrifice within the celestial Temple; so now again, is he called back from the heavenly to the old earthly landscape—to sun, moon, and stars, rocks, and islands, and mountains. But these are in a state of convulsion and chaos.

Nature, in a paroxysm of agony, reels to her core. Not now, among living creatures and elders—not now, among the white-robed martyrs—not now an auditor of the sweet psalmodies of the skies—but among earth's varied tenants, from the crowned monarch to the bond-slave in his chains, he listens to a wild but unavailing cry for help. And who is it that has evoked this wail of terror? It is no earthly despot—no earthly incarnation of tyranny and oppression. It is not even the subordinate figurative riders of the preceding seals, mounted on the red horse of war, the black horse of famine, the pale horse of pestilence and death. It is One "mightier than the mightiest." It is the majestic Being seated on the Throne! It is the wrath, not of a perishable mortal, but "the wrath of the LAMB!"

The wrath of man is great; the rage of the nations, as depicted in the sequel of the Book, is terrible; the track of the conqueror is "with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood." But what is this, compared to what forms the climax and closing of this appalling vision, "the Day, the Great day" (as it stands in the original) "of His wrath has come, and who shall be able to stand?"

Now, to what does this tremendous description refer? In answering the question, we must bear in mind here also, that the interpretation of the present vision must be harmony with those which precede it. While what is called the historical school regard these seals as representing successive epochs or eras following one another in chronological sequence, and their fulfillment exhausted when the eras are past; we are disposed far rather to consider the figures, not as progressive, neither as restricted in their application to any one particular period, but co-extensive over the entire ages of the Church, from the time in which John wrote to the end of the world.

Nor is it any violation of this theory, to credit some particular epochs with a larger share of the realities described in the visions than others. The red horse of WAR may have been more rampant in one age than another: in that of Nero, Vespasian, Attila, Mahomet, or Napoleon. The black rider of SCARCITY may have had to poise his balances with a more trembling hand in one era than another: for example, during the Roman age—in the reigns of Alexander Severus and Caracalla, which enjoyed an unhappy distinction for their grinding taxation and merciless fiscal oppression; or during those invasions which desolated the dismembering Empire of the Caesars, and when millions were left to send up their unsuccoured cry amid once smiling fields, now blackened with ashes and smoke, dearth and famine.

The grim rider with his follower on the Pale horse, may have had wider scope at one time than another for their baleful work, in the decimating PLAGUE and PESTILENCE. The cry of the martyrs was doubtless louder than it has been before or since, in what was pre-eminently called "The Martyr age"—during the reigns of Diocletian, Galerius, and Valerian—the first grand effort of Pagan Rome to strangle the infant religion at its birth. Or, again, during the great struggles of the era of the Reformation.

But still, the visions are not to be limited or restricted to any period, or to any special historic events; but rather are to be regarded as co-extensive with the history of Christendom; partially fulfilled in the past, and having, it may be, a fuller and ampler exposition in the future. The Sixth seal must, in this respect, be in harmony with its predecessors. Those who adopt the purely historical view, and represent this wondrous description to have exhausted its fulfillment with the others in the earlier centuries, appear to restrict it to events altogether unproportionate in importance and grandeur with the language of the seal itself. In accordance, indeed, with the general and enlarged interpretation we have assigned to the previous seals, we are far from asserting that this last one may not also have had a partial fulfillment in some of those more appalling revolutions which in the course of eighteen centuries have convulsed the nations.

The Hebrew language—the language of Scripture—deals greatly in hyperbole. Figures are often employed to describe events which, to the prosaic Western mind, would appear overwrought, exaggerated, and unreal. Moreover, we must remember, that the very same symbolism here employed—the veiling of the heavens, the darkened sun and falling stars—was adopted by the Jewish Prophets to depict the woes impending on their own country and capital. We are not therefore disposed to question that, in a primary though subordinate sense, these vast convulsions may apply to the subversion of the enthroned despotisms and tyrannies of the world; and specially to the greatest of all moral and social revolutions, which occurred at the commencement of the Christian era—the downfall of Paganism in the Empire of Rome.

But yet we ask, What unsophisticated Christian, what simple reader of his Bible, can peruse these words, and rest in any interpretation short of the culminating one—that we have here an unmistakable description of THE DAY OF JUDGMENT! Among all the revolutions of earth (and making, too, every allowance for the boldness and license of Hebrew symbolism), what one of them can for a moment lay claim to such a portraiture as this? Whereas, on the other hand, it does appear an appropriate conclusion to a series of visions containing a synopsis of the world's history subsequently to be amplified, to have thus depicted in magnificent coloring the final scene of all—the terminating event of long ages and centuries, in the descent of her great Lord and King to His throne of Judgment; accompanied with the wild cry of the fearful and the unbelieving, to be hidden from the wrath of the Lamb, as they invoke rocks and mountains to screen them from His withering glance.

That great day waited for by all time, has "surprised the hypocrites!" A daring defiant world that had long treated the warning as an idle dream, now by the heaving earthquake, and the falling stars, and the blackened sun, and the blood-red moon, awakes up to the awful verity. The despots who lived for ambition, and the misers who lived for gold, and the mighty men—the warriors who made the earth to tremble, and lived for fame—the freeman in his fancied freedom, and the toiling slave in his iron fetters—all (be their station what it may) all who have lived a selfish, skeptic existence, are now roused in a moment to a bitter agonizing sense of their misery and ruin, call upon rocks and caves to screen and cover them from the wrath of the Lamb, "For the great day of His wrath has come, and who can stand?"

Does not, indeed, the Savior Himself, in significant and emphatic words, uttered in His own final prophecy on the Mount of Olives, give the best commentary on this seal? The very language and figures He employs are the same as here, "Immediately after those horrible days end, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then at last, the sign of the coming of the Son of Man will appear in the heavens, and there will be deep mourning among all the nations of the earth. And they will see the Son of Man arrive on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."

What are our feelings in the prospect of "that great Day of His wrath?" It is the only one—at all events out of four of the previous visions—in which we have each of us individually a sure and certain personal interest. The red horse of war, we know only in pondering the sad annals of the past, or the records of contemporary history; our eyes (God grant it) may never see the plungings of that crimson steed and the unsheathings of that terrible sword. Although ever and always, in other districts of the world, we hear of the locust and the drought together marking out the desolating pathway of the black horse of famine. And although many a pining heart at home, in dens of misery, is familiar with the gaunt visage; yet that pale steed and its balance-bearing rider is a stranger, and in all probability will ever be, to those whose eyes trace these pages. The pale horse of death, in the terrific sense of plague and pestilence, only lingers in the recollection of a few: we have never seen the dreaded mark of doleful memory affixed on stricken doorways—the lumbering death-wagon gathering its bundles in the awful harvest, and pursuing its errand amid silent streets.

The martyr's cry has been heard in our days in the islands of the Pacific and within Spanish and Italian dungeons; but it is a stranger, and will, we trust ever be so, in this land of glorious light and freedom, where social and spiritual slavery are alike unknown.

But not so the awful verity contained in this Sixth seal. We cannot decipher the hieroglyphics of the future—we cannot interpret the times and seasons of prophecy; but this we do know, that sooner or later the hour will arrive, when our ears shall hear that earthquake's sound, and our eyes witness these departing heavens! Oh! with what different feelings will that event be contemplated by the two great divisions into which mankind shall then resolve themselves—when all the conventional distinctions of earth shall be ended forever—when the rich and the poor, the king and the peasant, the slave and the free, shall meet together under the blaze of that descending Throne!

The WICKED, those who have rejected and neglected the great salvation—spurned the offers of pardon—despised the day of grace—dishonored the Savior's name—dethroned Him from their hearts and lives, when "the great day of His wrath" has bursts upon them in all its appalling and blazing splendors—when the earth is shaking, and the heavens are dissolving, and the stars falling from their orbits, it will not be one, or all, of these spectacles on which their eyes will be fixed in trembling agony. One Object, and one Object alone (as if their senses were locked to all others), will arrest their gaze, and from which they will try in vain to escape: "Behold! HE comes with clouds, and every eye shall see HIM."

They make dumb nature their god, uttering wild imprecations to its rocks and mountains, "Fall on us! and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the Throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb!" But there is no response; Creation, loyal to its great Maker, is deaf to their call. That wrath MUST be borne; that withering glance of rejected, unrequited love must be endured. "Who shall be able to stand?" receives no answer in the heavens above, or in the depths beneath. We can imagine the sinner rushing from spot to spot in a wild delirium of despair, making rock and mountain echo to the wail from which there is no response, "Where shall I go from Your Spirit? or where shall I flee to escape from Your presence?"

But "who shall be able to stand?" That cry—that question in the lips of the true and devoted followers of the Lamb—can be answered. In that wildest drama of God's moral and material creation, there will be to him one glorious Rock of shelter and safety, where he may flee until the indignation be over and past. "A MAN shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and as a covert from the tempest." That LAMB, whose wrath will be so terrible to the scorners of His grace, will be the Dispenser of love and blessing to His own people. The pillar-cloud, all dark with terror and wrath to the Egyptians, will be gleaming with light and glory to His covenant Israel. The Hand, in the one case, 'strong to smite,' will, in the other, be 'strong to save.' Let none leave the safety of that day to hang on the risk of a peradventure . Let not the question remain in perilous doubtfulness, "Am I among the saved, or the unsaved?" Shall I stand, or shall I not stand? Shall that revelation of revelations be to me a revelation of wrath and terror, or one of peace and joy? Can I, even now, take up, in anticipation, the song of one of the glorified dead?

"Bold shall I stand on that Great Day;
For who aught to my charge shall lay,
When by Your blood absolved I am,
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame?" -John Wesley

Yes! it will be 'the Blood'—the blood sprinkled on the lintels and door-posts—that will then be the passover to that righteous wrath. Flee to it now. "Run for your lives! Do not stop anywhere in the valley. And don't look back! Escape to the mountains, or you will die!" Escape! for, as you linger, the ominous clouds may be gathering—the now slumbering earthquake may be about to burst—and grace and repentance and mercy may be among the things of an irrevocable past. Blessed be God, that "great day of His wrath" has not yet overtaken you—Mercy still lingers on the steps of her golden throne. The "still small voice" of redeeming love is now heard preceding "the earthquake, the wind, and the fire." Oh! hearken to its message of pardon and peace, before, in the midst of these symbols of terror and judgment-wrath, "the great day of His wrath has come, and who shall be able to stand?"

While sinners in despair shall call,
'Rocks hide us!—mountains on us fall!'
The saints, victorious over the tomb,
May sing for joy—'The Lord has come!'