The Parenthetic Visions - The Sealed of Israel

(Chap. vii. i8.)


An objection may be taken to our interpretation of the convulsion under the sixth seal, - that it is not in harmony with that which we have given of the earlier ones. In these, the "earth," for instance, was assumed to be literally that; in the latter, it is taken in a figurative sense; and it may be urged that this want of uniformity in interpretation allows us to make of these visions very much what we will, - in fact makes their alleged meaning altogether inconsistent and unreliable.

This is a mistake, though a very natural one, and it needs to be examined and shown to be such, or else a serious difficulty will remain in the way of further progress, if such indeed be possible. For the same inconsistency, if it be really that, will appear again and again as we proceed with our study of the book before us; we shall be using the same terms now in a literal and again in a figurative sense, as it may appear, arbitrarily, but in fact as compelled by necessity to do so, or according to the law of the highest reason.

Figures pervade our common speech, even the most literal and prosaic, - disguised for us often by the mere fact that they are used so commonly. We employ them, too, with a latitude of meaning which in no wise affects their intelligibility to us. They are used with a certain freedom in which there is nothing arbitrary, but the reverse. They are used rather in the interests of clearness and intelligibility, the main end sought, which governs indeed their use. It is simple enough to say that the whole art of language is in clearness of expression, and that the right use of figures is therefore for this end.

Now, in visions, such as we have in Revelation, figures, it is true, have a much larger place: the meaning of the vision as a whole is symbolic - figurative. Yet this does not at all suppose that every feature in it is so, and in no case perhaps is this really true.

Take the fifth seal as a sufficient example, - where the altar is figurative, and so are the white robes, but the killing of their brethren is real and literal. This mingling of the literal and symbolic in one vision makes it plain that they may be and will be found mingled through the whole series of visions. And if it be asked, How, then are we to discern the one from the other? the answer will be, that each case must be judged separately, - the sense that is simplest, most self consistent, and agreeable to the context being surely the right one. God writes, as man does, to be understood, and intelligibility gives the law, therefore, to all the rest. It is reassuring indeed to remember this: plenty of deep things there are in the Word of God, and more perhaps than any where else are they to be found in the book of Revelation, but the mystery in them is never from mere verbal concealments or misty speech, but from defect in us, - spiritual dullness and incapacity. This most difficult of all Scripture books God has stamped with the name of "REVELATION."

These thoughts are not an unnecessary introduction to the parenthetic visions between the sixth and the seventh seals, where just such questions have been asked as to the sealing of a hundred and forty-four thousand out of every tribe of the children of Israel. Is it in fact Israel literally, or a typical, spiritual Israel that we are to think of? The latter is the thought of expositors generally, though by no means all; and we are told (as by Lange, for instance,) that if we take Israel literally to be meant, then we must take all the other details, - the exact number sealed, etc., - literally also: to do which would not involve any absurdity, but which we have seen to be not in the least necessitated. We are free, as to all matters of the kind, to ask, What is the most suitable meaning? and to find in this suitability, the justification of one view or the other. The context argues for the literal sense. The innumerable multitude seen afterward before the throne, "out of all nations and kindreds and peoples and tongues," shows us plainly a characteristically Gentile gathering, and that they are in some sense in contrast with the Israelitish one seems clear. Taken together, they throw light upon one another, and display the divine mercy both to Jews and Gentiles in the latter days. While the separateness of these companies, and the priority given to Israel, agree with the character of a time when the Christian Church being removed to heaven, the old distinctions are again in force. We are again in the line of Old Testament prophecy, and of Jewish "promises" (Rom. ix. 4); "the Lion of the tribe of Judah" has taken the book. Even apart from the context, (decisive as this is), the enumeration of the tribes would seem to make the description literal enough, even although Dan be at present missing from among them, and supposing no reason could be assigned for this. Judah too is in her place as the royal tribe: not the natural birthright, but divine favour Israel controls the order here. Every thing assures us that it is indeed Israel, and as a nation, that is now in the scene. Let us turn back now to see how she is introduced to us.

"After this, I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that no wind should blow on the earth, or on the sea, or upon any tree. And I saw another angel ascend from the sunrising, having the seal of the living God; and he cried with a great voice to the four angels to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, ‘Hurt not the earth, nor the sea, nor the trees, till we shall have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.’"

Here it is manifest that, terrible as have been the judgments already, far worse are at hand. The four winds - expressive of all the agencies of natural evil - are about to blow together upon the earth, under the control of spiritual powers (the angels) which guide them according to the supreme will of God. It is the "day of the Lord of Hosts upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low" (Isa. ii. 12). And as nothing lifts itself up as the tree does, so the "tree" is specially marked out here: the ax is laid at the root of it. The passage in Isaiah goes on quite similarly: "And upon all the cedars of Lebanon that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan" (v. 13).

But this becomes, as in the Baptist’s lips, a general sentence upon man as man, from which none may escape but as in the Lord’s grace counted worthy. Thus the sealing becomes quite evidently the counterpart of what we find in the ninth of Ezekiel, though there the range of judgment is more limited. "And He called to the man clothed in linen, which had the writer’s inkhorn by his side; and the Lord said unto him, ‘Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.’ And to the others He said in mine hearing, ‘Go ye after him through the city, and smite; let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity; slay utterly old and young, both maids and little children and women, but come not near any man upon whom is the mark.’"

The sealing is as evidently preservative as the "mark" is. They are both upon the forehead, - open and manifest. If we look on to the fourteenth chapter here, we shall find upon the hundred and forty-four thousand there (a company as to the identity of which with the present one it is not yet time to ask the question,) the name of the Lamb’s Father written, and the seal marks thus undoubtedly to whom they belong. Let us notice also that we are just approaching the time here in which the beast also will have his mark, if not always on the forehead, at least in the hands (chap. xiii. 16). The time of unreserved confession of one master or the other will then have come; and no divided service will be any longer possible. The beast "boycotts" (they have already invented both the thing and the expression for him,) those who do not receive his mark: those who do receive it are cast into the lake of fire (chap. xiii. ii Xiv. 9, io).

The sealing is angelic, - a very different thing therefore from present sealing with the Holy Ghost, and from any power or gift of the Spirit. No angel could confer this, and the creaturehood of the angel here is manifest from his words, "Till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads." The "we" shows that more than one execute the ministry, and they that do this speak of God as "our God." This is decisive, apart from all dispensational considerations. But in what the sealing consists it seems scarcely possible to say: the effect is, that the people of God are manifested as His, and preserved thus from the judgments which are ready to be sent upon it.

"The seal of the living God" seems along with this to imply their preservation as living men against all the power of their adversaries - His, and therefore theirs. True, that the power of the living God is shown more victoriously in resurrection than in preservation merely; true also that to the souls under the altar it has been foretold of others of their brethren to be slain as they were, and who are no less marked as His by the deaths they die for Him than any others can be: yet the "seal of the living God" may clearly manifest its power in securing preservation of natural life, and the connection seems to imply this here; while thus alone do the two companies of this parenthetic vision, - the Jewish and the Gentile, - supplement each other, as is their evident design. This also to some will not be apparent, for the Gentile multitude are commonly taken to be risen saints in heaven. But the consideration of this must be reserved for the present.

Certainly the enumeration of the tribes speaks for their connection with God’s purposes for Israel nationally upon the earth, where her future is. In heaven, as a nation, she has no place, but on earth ever preserves it (Isa. lxvi. 22). And here the connection of both these companies with a series of events on earth is evident. It may be said that the souls under the altar find similarly their place in connection with the seals, and yet are passed from earth: but these are introduced to show the prevalence of persecution, the unchanged enmity to God manifesting itself thus after the first periods of judgment have run their course; while they bring on, as it would seem by their prayers, the crash which follows under the sixth seal.

No such connection can be seen here, but the saints here are to be sheltered from the judgments coming on the earth - being themselves on it, an Israelitish company, inferring national revival, significant enough for earth, but not at all for heaven.

Leaving this for the present, we must give our attention to the number so definitely stated, and so earnestly repeated, of this sealed company. The enumeration, so held up before us, and emphasized by repetition, cannot be a point of little consequence. Of each tribe distinctly it is stated that there are twelve thousand sealed. What, then, is the meaning of this number? It is evidently made up of 12 and io, the latter raised to its third power, the number of government and of responsibility. But we must look at these a little further.

Ten is the measure of responsibility, as in the ten commandments of the law; raised to the third power, it seems to me to be responsibility met in grace with glory; while the number 12 speaks, as I have elsewhere sought to show, of manifest government. If I read the meaning right, the two together speak of special place conferred upon this company in connection with the Lamb’s government of the earth; and this, it seems to me, is confirmed by other considerations.

That they are not the whole remnant of Israel preserved to be the stock of the millennial nation is evident from the one fact before mentioned, that the tribe of Dan has no place among them, and yet certainly has its place in the restored nation. In Ezekiel (xlviii. i), Dan has his portion in the extreme north of the land. Thus the hundred and forty-four thousand here are clearly a special company, and not the whole of the saved people.

But the case of Dan has further instruction for us in this connection; and we shall find it, if we turn back to the blessing of the tribes by Jacob in the end of the book of Genesis. Jacob himself tells us here that he is speaking of what should befall them in the "last days;" and it is to these last days plainly that Revelation brings us: so that the propriety of the application cannot be doubted. Let us listen, then, to what the dying patriarch has to say of Dan.

"Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse-heels, so that his rider shall fall backward. I have waited for Thy salvation, O Lord."

Abrupt, fragmentary, enigmatic, as the words are, with just this passage of Revelation before us, they startle us by the way in which they seem to meet the questionings which have been awakened by it. We are looking upon a sealed company, "a hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel." But Dan is not found among them! Can this tribe, we ask, have been suffered to drop out of God’s chosen earthly family, so as to have no part in the final blessing? The voice from of old answers the question decisively: "Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel." No! the Lord’s grace prevails over all failure: Dan does not lose his place. It cannot be that a tribe should perish out of the chosen people. But more, - the company before us, if we have read its numerical stamp aright, is a company having a place of rule under the Lamb in the day of millennial blessing; and among these, assuredly, Dan is not found. How the old prophecy comes in here once more with its assurance, "Dan shall judge his people"! The staff of judicial authority is not wholly departed; but simply as what is necessary to tribal place he retains it, "as one of the tribes of Israel," - nothing more.

The patriarch’s first words as to Dan imply, then, a low place - if not the lowest place - for Dan, even as his portion in Ezekiel is on the extreme northern border of the land. He retains his place as part of the nation, that is all. And if we naturally ask, Why? the answer is given in what follows "Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse-heels, so that his rider falleth backward."

Plainly these are characters which associate him in some way with the power of the enemy; for the "serpent," the "adder," speak of this. Jacob’s words would show that in the apostasy of the mass of the nation under Antichrist, in the days to which we are here carried, Dan has a more than ordinary place. If the antichrist be, as every thing assures us, a Jew himself, what would be more in accordance with all this than the ancient thought that he will be of Dan? And here how natural the groan, yet of faith, on the part of the remnant which breaks out in the next words of the prophecy, "I have waited for Thy salvation, O Lord"!

In Gad, therefore, the conflict finds its termination: "A troop shall overcome him, but he shall overcome at the last." Then in Asher and Naphtali the blessing follows, and Joseph and Benjamin show us in whom the blessing is. Upon all this, of course, it would be impossible to dilate now.

But all is confirmatory of the thought of this hundred and forty-four thousand being a special Israelitish company, destined of God to fill a place (but an earthly one,) in connection with the Lord’s government of the world in millennial days. We have now to look at the Gentile company in the next vision.

(Rev. vii. 7 - 17.)
The hundred and forty-four thousand have been sealed before the winds of heaven have been let loose upon the earth. Before the next vision they have spent their violence, the great tribulation is passed, and an innumerable company of people are seen as come out of it. This expression, "the great-tribulation," is one that rules in the interpretation of this scene as should be evident. When people simply read, "out of great tribulation," it was natural to think of all the redeemed of all generations as being included here, and the multitude and universality of the throng thus gathered would confirm the idea; but now it ought to be no longer possible. That it is "the great tribulation" is even emphasised in the original - "the tribulation, the great one," - to forbid all generalizing in this way. We are reminded of one specific one, which as thus named we are expected to know; and he who will take Scripture simply will surely find without difficulty the one intended. We have already gone over this ground, and there is scarcely need to remind our readers that the " great tribulation" of which our Lord spoke to His disciples, "such as was not from the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be," which is shortened by divine grace, for otherwise " no flesh should be saved," and at the close of which "they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven," must needs be that out of which the multitude before us come.

That the tribulation is thus immediately followed by the coming of the Lord from heaven makes it easier to understand another thing, that their standing before the throne, as the prophet sees them, does not necessitate the thought of their being in heaven. There is no hint of their being raised from the dead, or having died at all. Simply they are "before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple." Here again it is natural to the common habits of thought to suppose that the temple of God must be in heaven, and passages from this very book would doubtless be cited in support of this (chap. xi): these will come naturally before us for consideration in their own place; but here it is sufficient to say that it is not said "in heaven," and that on earth there is yet to be a temple, as Ezekiel shows. Isaiah also declares that also of the Gentiles the Lord will "take for priests and Levites" (lxvi. 21).

With this view at least let us look at the scene before us, and see what we can gather more. That they have "white robes" shows simply their acceptance; the palms in their hands speak of rest in victory; their words ascribe their salvation to God and to the Lamb, but they "cry," - it does not say "sing." The angels and the elders stand "around" the throne; they simply stand "before" it.

One of the elders now raises the question with John, "Who are these?" He, unable to say who they can be, refers back the question to the speaker, and he answers it. But note the strangeness of such a question upon the ordinary view, and the greater strangeness of John’s inability to answer. Plainly they were a company of saved ones giving praise for their salvation, and if it were the whole company, the very naturalness of the thought as accepted by so many would make us wonder at the question about it, still more at the apostle’s speechlessness. But he had seen another company in heaven, who still kept their place before his eyes, and who had sung the new song, and at least with fuller praise. As to these, no question had been raised at all. It would seem, he might be trusted to make out who these were; and one of these elders was now accosting him! How could he miss the thought that here was a separate class of redeemed ones, and certainly upon a lower footing than those whose rapturous thanksgiving he had heard before?

Accordingly he hears that such is the fact. He is told they are those who come out of the great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Not their sufferings have washed their robes white, but the Lamb’s blood: and here again, though the expression is peculiar, they are on common ground with saints at all times.

And on this account they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; (but in the new Jerusalem there is no temple: the "Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple of it;") and "He that sitteth on the throne shall spread His tabernacle over them." So rightly now the R.V., and not, "shall dwell among them." It is like Isaiah (iv. 6), who similarly describes the condition of Jerusalem in the time to which this refers: "And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain." How plain that it is as protection and defence, from the words that follow here in Revelation: "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more, neither shall the sun strike upon them, nor any heat"! How suited to men still in the world is this assurance!

But it goes on: "For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their Shepherd, and shall guide them to fountains of waters of life, and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Blessed as all this description is, it seems to fall short of the full eternal blessing, and certainly short of what is heavenly. The impression given is of the earth’s warfare not yet over, sin and evil not completely banished, but themselves indeed effectually sheltered. The thought of shepherd-care suits this as well as does the tabernacle stretched over them. The thanksgiving expressed also is that of those emerging out of a trial great as that out of which it is said they come, and for whom the joy of deliverance as yet allows little else to be thought of. There is not even a song - and Scripture can be trusted to its least tittle of expression - they "cry with a great voice," but do not "sing."

We may well believe, then, that these are the priestly class taken from among the nations of which Isaiah speaks (lxvi. 21). I am aware that it is a matter of dispute whether "I will take of them for priests and Levites" is to be referred to the Israelites whom the Gentiles bring back or to the Gentiles who bring them back; but, as Delitzsch well says, "God is here certainly not announcing so simple a thing as that the priests among the returned people should be still priests." He has just declared that the Gentiles "shall bring all your brethren out of all the nations for an offering unto the Lord . . . as the children of Israel bring their offering in a clean vessel unto the house of the Lord." The Gentiles are here, therefore, this "clean vessel;" and being thus cleansed, He further promises as to them, "And of them also will I take for priests and Levites, saith the Lord."

The passages in Isaiah and Revelation mutually confirm each other in this application, and we see who are those honored to serve in the temple of the Lord, as we see also what temple it is in which they serve. All is in perfect harmony, and the multitude of Gentiles stands here in plain analogy with Israel’s hundred and forty-four thousand, and upon a similar footing to them. The two together complete the picture of blessing for both Israel and the Gentiles, through the storm which is about to burst upon the earth. Neither group is heavenly; neither is the full number to be saved and enjoy the summer sunshine of millennial days; but they are the sheaf of first-fruits of the harvest beyond, in each case dedicated, therefore, in a peculiar manner to the Lord.

Let us pause here to notice the thought so characteristic of the book of Revelation, book as it is of the throne and of governmental recompense, - of "robes washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb." The figures of Scripture are perfectly definite and absolutely appropriate, never needing apology. Of them, as of all else in it, the words of the Lord are true: "Scripture cannot be broken." On the other hand, they are various, and with meaning in their variations, so that if we are not careful, we may easily force them into contradiction with each other and with the truth.

What, for instance, is the "robe" in which the saint appears before God? It is easy to answer, and absolutely scriptural to quote, "He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness" (Isa. lxi. io). And how beautifully does the "robe" speak of that, by which the shame of our nakedness, which came in through sin, is put away!

But what is our righteousness? Here again we have most familiar texts, "This is the name whereby He shall be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness’" (Jer. xxiii. 6); "Christ, who is made of God unto us . . . righteousness." And the prodigal’s "best robe" reminds us here how the beauty of Christ upon us must transcend far the lustre of angelic garments.

Nevertheless, if we think we have got the one idea of Scripture in this matter, we shall be sorely perplexed when we come to this text in Revelation. Could we wash this robe, and make it white in the blood of the Lamb? Assuredly not: it would be impossible to apply this expression, in any way that can be imagined, to this robe, which is Christ.

The Revelation has its own distinct phraseology here, in perfect harmony with the line of truth which it takes up. The robe is still the symbol of righteousness, but in view of the recompense that awaits us, "the fine linen" with which the bride is clothed, "is the righteousnesses - the righteous deeds - of the saints" (chap. xix. 8). It is practical righteousness that is in question, - not something wrought by another for us, but wrought by our own hands. It is a completely different thought from that in the Lord’s parable, and in no wise contradictory because so different. Assuredly "we shall all be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive for the things done in the body, whether it be good or bad" (2 Cor. v. io).

For the saint, indeed, this is not to come personally into judgment. That, the Lord has assured us, personally we cannot do (Jno. V. 24, R.V.). God can raise no question as to a soul whom He has received, whether He has received him. The matter of reward is entirely distinct from that of personal acceptance; but it has its place. And here comes in this solemn and precious reminder of how the robe needs washing in the blood of the Lamb in order to be white. How else could any thing of ours find approval and recompense? Thus as the apostle tells us in his prayer for Onesiphorus (2 Tim. i. i8), that reward itself is "mercy:" "the Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day!"

These saints out of the great tribulation know at least that not by tribulation, but by the work of Another, can that which is best and holiest in their lives be accepted of God. "They have washed their robes." They have renounced the thought of any proper whiteness in their robes save that produced by the blood of the Lamb. On this ground they are as we, and we are as they.

Looking back at these visions now, and their connection with the seals, we see more fully than ever the introductory character the latter have, and how at the same time the seventh seal introduces to the open book itself. The sixth seal is not final judgment, prophetic of it as it may be. It is but as a zephyr compared with the storm-blast, for the winds have not yet been allowed to burst forth as they will. So too the brethren of the fifth-seal martyrs, which are to be slain as they were, have yet to give up their lives. But because the seventh seal, in opening the whole book, brings us face to face with this last and most awful period of the world’s history ever to be known, therefore before it is opened, we are summoned apart for the succession of events, to see the gracious purposes which are hidden behind the coming judgments, - to see beyond it, in fact, to the clear blue sky beyond. And we see why these are not seals nor trumpets, but an interruption - a parenthetic instruction, which, coming in the place it does, pushes as it were the seventh seal on to be an eighth section, itself filling the seventh place. If numbers have at all significance, we may surely read them here. The seeming disorder becomes beauteous order: the seventh seal fills the eighth place, as introducing to the new condition of things, the earth’s last crisis; the seventh place is filled by that which gives rest to the heart in God’s work accomplished, a sabbatism which no restlessness of man man disturb! Let us too rest in thanksgiving, for these are the ways of God.