Page images

(xxi. 1–xxii. 5), that of the New Jerusalem, and a general conclusion (xxii. 6—21), corresponding to the opening of the book. In order to carry out this distribution, Hengstenberg assumes several episodes or interludes of considerable length, for which he thinks it easy to account on his hypothesis ; one, for instance, comprising the entire seventh chapter, and another the tenth, with a part of the eleventh.

These · groups,’ it will be seen, are not like the acts' of a dramatic poem, to which others have endeavoured to assimilate the principal divisions of the book. The acts of a drama are, and must be, chronologically successive, each exhibiting a certain subdivision of the whole time of action, and none including the denouement or catastrophe, except the last. But according to Hengstenberg, each group contains a drama in itself, and each winds up with a catastrophe, or rather with the catastrophe common to them all, after which the scene is shifted, not for the purpose of continuing the action, but of recommencing it, and, in one case at least, going back to a point of time still more remote than that at which the series began at first. At the same time, all these parallel predictions, although each is self-contained, are connected with each other as the links of one chain, which would be broken by the loss of either. This may be rendered clearer by a rapid glance at each of the first four groups in order. The general title or inscription is contained in the first three verses, where the book is described as a revelation, made to John by Jesus Christ himself, of things to be soon accomplished, which Hengstenberg understands not merely of the incipient fulfilment, but of the first of those distinct fulfilments, which were to follow one another in a series, or cycle, to the end of time.

The remainder of the first chapter constitutes the special introduction to the first great division of the book, the Epistles to the Seven Churches, namely, those in and over which John's apostolical ministry was immediately exercised for many years, and through which the instruction here afforded, though directly adapted to their actual condition, may be rightfully extended to all times and places, without any gratuitous assumption of a typical or double sense, beyond what is involved in the nature of the case. The description of our Lord, contained in this introductory chapter, is supposed to have an intimate connexion with what follows, the images presented being such as were precisely best adapted both to comfort true believers, and bring sinners to repentance, so that this vivid exhibition of Christ's majesty and justice, is a kind of emblematical summary of what is afterwards expressed in words.

The Angels of the Seven Churches, Hengstenberg denies to be either guardian angels, or mere messengers, or diocesan bishops, or individual pastors, but regards them as ideal representatives of the ministry, eldership, or governing body in the several churches. In this connexion, he briefly but decidedly repudiates the doctrine of Vitringa and his school, that the Christian church was organized on the model of the Jewish synagogue, which, at least in its details, was a human institution of no great antiquity, whereas its real model was the simple patriarchal eldership, which lay at the foundation of the whole theocratical system, and yet was suited, in itself, to both economies or dispensations.

The Seven Epistles themselves are then explained as introductory to the prophecies which constitute the subject-matter of the book, and as intended to prepare those immediately addressed, not only for the following predictions, but for the events predicted, by exhibiting the spiritual nature of the gospel, and its bearing on the hopes of individuals, as well as of the church at large ; of which the readers of the book might easily have lost sight, in the blaze of prophetic imagery, by which so many have in every age been blinded to everything except the mere outside of Christianity. Thus understood, the striking dissimilitude between the Seven Epistles and the rest of the Apocalypse, instead of indicating different writers, or incongrous and wholly independent compositions from the same pen, is really a strong proof of unity of purpose, because it places in the forefront of the prophecy the very corrective which was necessary to preserve it from abuse.

One point, upon which Hengstenberg lays great stress, as a key to the true date, and also to the just interpretation of the book, is the total and obvious unlikeness of the state of things described or presupposed in these epistles, to that which we know to have existed at the time of Paul's labours in the very same region. The points of difference which he specifies are, first, the declension of the churches in proconsular Asia from the warmth of their first love, and that strength of faith, so frequently commended in Paul's epistles; and secondly, the entire disappearance of that Judaic form of Christianity which caused so much perplexity to the preceding generation, until swept away by the destruction of Jerusalem.

The first epistle to the Church at Ephesus describes that Church as zealous for the truth in opposition to heretical errors, but as having lost the first warmth of its spiritual affection, and therefore calls it to repentance. The Nicolaitans here mentioned are identical as Balaamites, or followers of Balaam, by an etymological affinity between the names, as well as by the nature of the heresy itself, as here described.

The Church at Smyrna is addressed in the second epistle, as alike free from great sins and great merits, and the exhortation to repentance is accordingly exchanged for an earnest admonition to be bold and faithful. The comparatively good condition of this church may have been connected with the ministry of Polycarp, which probably began long before the date of the Apocalypse.

The Church at Pergamus appears, in the third epistle, not entirely free from Nicolaitan corruption, yet eminently faithful in the midst of severe trials. The Antipas here mentioned is supposed by Hengstenberg to be an enigmatical title, and he seems to concur in the opinion of an old interpreter, that it means against all. At the same time, he believes the person designated by it to be Timothy, who suffered martyrdom in Asia about the same time of John's residence in Patmos. The church at Thyatira, founded perhaps by Lydia, Paul's convert at Philippi (Acts xvi. 14), presents a kind of contrast to the church at Ephesus, which showed a commendable zeal against error, but had left its first love, whereas this was still maintained at Thyatira, but without sufficient firmness in withstanding error.

Instead of the common text, the (or that) woman, in chap. i. 20, Hengstenberg adopts Jachmann's reading, thy wife, which he explains to mean the weaker and more deceivable part of the community, by whose means a corruption of the truth had been admitted, here represented as false prophecy, and designated as of heathen origin by the use of the name Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, at whose instigation the unlawful worship of Jehovah, under the forbidden form of golden calves, was exchanged for that of Baal; so that Balaam and Jezebel may both be regarded as historical types of the corrupting influence exerted on the Church by heathenism.

In the fifth church, that of Sardis, we have still another phase of spiritual character and state presented, namely, that of a nominal or formal Christianity, without its reality and power, and an appropriate exhortation to the few who still continued undefiled, to strengthen what remained and was ready to perish.

The sixth epistle, to the Church in Philadelphia, contains the only instance, in this group or series, of allusion to the Jews as either persecutors or seducers, and encourages the feeble church to disregard the arrogant malignity of those who falsely claimed to be the Church of God, by virtue of their natural descent, but who were really the * synagogue of Satan,' a description which must surely be offensive to those Christians of our own day, who are not ashamed to dote upon the Jews as such. In opposition to this error, Hengstenberg understands it to be taught here and elsewhere, that there has never been more than one true Israel or chosen people ; that this body, even under the old dispensation, was a mixed one, free access being even then afforded to all heathen proselytes ; that this same body was continued afterwards, and is perpetuated now in the Christian Church, not merely as the antitype, but as the actual continuation or successor of the old church, the uncorrupted part of which was the basis, nucleus, or germ of the new organization.

The Church of Laodicea is described in the seventh and last epistle, as lukewarm, i. e., neither heated by divine love, nor aware of its own coldness, but, though really destitute of what was requisite to spiritual life and health, engrossed by the delusion of its own abundance and prosperity, from which it is exhorted to escape by repentance, and to . seek supplies in Christ.

These epistles Hengstenberg regards as containing a direct historical description of the spiritual state of the principal churches where John laboured-a state, however, which was not peculiar, or confined to them, but may be renewed in any age or country. Hence, although as really adapted to the wants of those immediately addressed, as Paul's, or any other apostolical epistles, they are, at the same time, indirect predictions of certain spiritual changes and varieties which the


Church may be expected to experience, through all the periods of her earthly progress. It is, therefore, equally gratuitous to argue, that because they relate to local and temporary circumstances, they have only a fortuitous connexion with what follows; or, on the other hand, that because they form a part of this great prophecy, the churches here addressed are not the churches which were really so called, but mere ideas, types, or emblematical descriptions of the Church at large, in its various spiritual states and aspects.

These internal vicissitudes are not those of any particular period or periods in the history of the Church, but may all co-exist in different portions at the same time, as well as follow one another, at successive times, in the same part, or in the Church at large. According to this theory, the seven epistles constitute a substantive prophecy, including the whole field of history, and, when this is concluded, the prophet does not pass to a new period, but begins afresh, in order to exhibit the same thing in a new light, and to make other parts of his great subject prominent. This second group or series is that of the Seven Seals, in which the prophet is caught up into heaven, and there witnesses the convocation of a great assembly, with a view to the protection of the persecuted Church against its mortal enemy, the world.

The disclosure of God's purposes is represented by the gradual opening of a book, or roll, with seven seals, the removal of which, one by one, reveals a part of the great mystery. The instrument, or agent, in this revelation is the Son of God, who appears both as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and as a sacrificial Lamb, not merely ready to be slain, but slain already. As the judgments thus prophetically threatened were to be inflicted in the present life, there was need of some assurance that the saints should not be sharers in them. This assurance is afforded in a form analogous to that of the antecedent threatening, by an episode which occupies the seventh chapter, and in which the Church is first assured of the Divine protection in this world, and then of everlasting glory in the world to come. The final triumph of God's people, and destruction of his foes, is sublimely expressed by a single verse, which, according to the usual division of the text, is the first of the eighth chapter, but which Hengstenberg considers as the close of the second group or series. When the seventh seal was opened, there was silence in heaven, considered as the stage or scene on which this great drama was presented. The half hour does not denote the actual duration, but the time of the scenic exhibition which John witnessed. The silence itself is that of death to the enemy, of late so noisy, and of calm repose to God's afflicted people, where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.'

Having thus brought the prophetic history once more to its conclusion, the inspired seer begins again, and traverses the same field in a third group, or series that of the Seven Trumpets. It is, of course, impossible, by abstract or quotation, to give any just idea of the learned and ingenious arguments by which our author vindicates this method of dividing and distributing the parts, against that preferred by many


eminent interpreters, who, influenced, perhaps, in some degree, by the accidental or conventional position of the verse at the beginning of the eighth chapter, suppose the seven trumpets, if not the whole remainder of the book, to be included in the seventh seal. The point to which his reasonings all converge, however, is, that the starting-point, the stages, and the goal, may all be distinctly traced and fixed in each of these divisions, which must, therefore, be co-ordinate and parallel, and cannot be related to each other as the whole to a part, or the genus to its species.

This new scene, or rather this new drama, opens with a vision of seven angels, each provided with a trumpet, which are sounded in succession, and at every blast a portion of the future is disclosed, precisely as at the opening of the seven seals. This exact correspondence seems to show, not merely that the seals and trumpets are mere scenic signs of revelation or discovery, but also that the things disclosed are substantially the same in either case. For if they had reference to successive periods, however different the events of those two periods might be, the divine communication of them to the prophet could hardly have been naturally represented by the opening of seals in one case, and by the blowing of trumpets in the other. On the contrary, if merely a new aspect of the same great period was to be presented, it was altogether natural that this varied exhibition of the same thing should be figuratively represented by a different mode of publication; and if the predominant feature in this new view was to be the prevalence of war, it could not have been more appropriately signified than by the blowing of the martial trumpet.

The seven trumpets, and the several disclosures which they represent, are so distinguished and arranged as to form two classes. The first four announce great judgments on four divisions of the world; to wit, the Earth, the Sea, the Rivers, and the Sky. These are followed by the flight of an angel, or, according to the text adopted by the modern critics, an eagle, denouncing three woes on the earth, which are then successively promulged by the blowing of the last three trumpets. There is also a significant distinction with respect to the space allotted to the two bands of trumpets, the second being described with far more fulness and minuteness than the first. The supposition that this difference was meant to represent the last disclosures as more fearful than the first, may, perhaps, be considered as confirmed by the fact that the injuries announced by the first four trumpets are restricted to the third part of the earth, &c., whereas, in the other three, there is no such limitation.

To this group, as well as to the one before it, there is added an interlude, contained in ch. x. 1-xi. 13, and intended to strengthen both the prophet and the Church for the approaching trials. This is interposed between the sixth and seventh trumpets, as the other was between the sixth and seventh seals. At the end of the eleventh chapter, we have reached a point beyond which progress is impossible, the same point, too, with that at the end of the seventh or beginning of the eighth; to wit, the final triumph and unresisted reign of God and Christ.

« PreviousContinue »