There are many who assume, that what is here treated of under the imagery of the opening of the seven seals, is the continuous fortune of the Christian Church and the Roman world, from the time of John's banishment, or soon thereafter, to the consummation of all things. By this class of interpreters, the opening of the seals was the opening of a prophetic roll, containing an outline of the triumphs of the Gospel, in connection with the great world powers, down to the coming of Christ, and the introduction of the Millennial reign. That there is truth of some sort underlying this view, we may readily admit; but that it is exactly of the kind which the advocates of this theory usually describe, we may just as readily question.
The amazing pomp, solemnity, and universal demonstration, with which the opening of these seven seals is approached in the two preceding chapters, forbids the assumption, that nothing more is meant than the disclosure to the Church of a dim epitome of its earthly history. God does not employ so much parade, nor do all the angels and principalities of eternity become so profoundly enthusiastic, over the letting forth of a few scarcely traceable predictions, touching the earthly successes of the Gospel, the reigns of a few Roman Emperors, and the mere mundane fortunes of Christian confessors.
The several particulars in the preliminary description, also, prove that something transcendently higher is intended, than has transpired since the vision was seen, or that ever will transpire within the limits of the present dispensation. The elders already have their crowns, the giving of which belongs to the resurrection period (2 Timothy 4:8). The throne comes to its place just at the moment in which John beholds it (Revelation 4:2), betokening a new administration other than what had previously been. Christ appears as the Lamb, which is not the character of a Revelator; but it is the character of the predicted "Ruler of the land" about to take possession of the inheritance (Isaiah 16:1).
The question of worthiness and ability, presented a condition wholly unheard of in all the multiplied instances of the giving of sacred predictions. The bringing forward of the prayers of the saints, and the joyous utterances of the prophets, show that more is embraced than a laying open of the course of this world's history, for prayer and prophecy have quite another burden.
The much weeping of John is rendered ridiculous, if referred to a feeling of disappointment at not being able to find out a little more prophecy. The universal and adoring gladness of all the angels, and all holy beings, can find no adequate justification in the mere disclosure to people of the occurrences cited by the historical school as the fulfillment of the seals, trumpets, and vials. The entire absence of any reading of what was written, either on the inside or on the outside of the book, or of any reference to anything supposed to be recorded in it, should lead us to question that the breaking of its seals had reference to the rehearsal of its contents. And the character of the manifestations, along with concurrent explanations, as seal after seal was broken; besides the numerous cross lights from other parts of Scripture; all combine to prove, that something else is signified than the history of the present dispensation.
There is also a link of consecution, given in the record itself, which must not be overlooked. We hold it to be out of the question, in all just exegesis, to give an adequate explanation of the vision of the stars and candlesticks, including the seven epistles, without making it span the entire earthly church state. The objections that have been urged to the contrary, are futile in the extreme, and can be made to weigh as heavily against any scheme of Apocalyptic interpretation, as against this. And if the scope of the first vision stretches to the period of the consummation, it is settled that everything relating to this book and its seals, refers above all, not to things which run parallel with the earthly church state, but to "the things which must take place AFTER these things" (Revelation 4:1); that is, to another administration.
But, as the coming administration of power is to be the consummation of the present dispensation, and as all its wonderful actings of sovereignty and judgment move in the same line of God's providence with people and nations now; as a matter of course, an imperfect fulfillment through all the ages of the present order is also embraced. The resurrection of Christ and the distribution of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, was the germ of everything that is to be when the final consummation is complete. The preaching of the Gospel, and its struggles with the world-powers in this dispensation, is the embryo of everything to come. It is the justification of believers, and their anointing to eternal regency and priesthood; and it is the judgment of the world and of Satan, with prelibations of the doom that awaits them. Only, the thing is not yet consummated, actualized, and manifested. Nor will it be, in the present order, until Christ's coming with power, to enforce, by a new administration, what is now realized in part, but is still mainly prospective. Accordingly, the breaking of the seal of the sepulchre, the outpouring of spiritual power upon the apostles, the visitations upon antagonizing potencies, and all the victories of the Gospel in the course of the earthly church-state, are really precursory fulfillments of the opening of these seven seals, and are in some sense included in them.
There is, then, a solid basis on which, within certain limitations, the views of the Preterist, who traces the events under the opening of the seals in the course of history since John's time, and the views of the Futurist, who refers them to the period of the judgment hereafter, may be harmonized, and both accepted, without either one impairing the distinctness or truthfulness of the other. The only prerequisite to the entertainment of both is, that the two should be homogeneous, and that the one fulfillment should be regarded as inchoate, and only a sort of preliminary and imperfect rehearsal or earnest of the other. Solid objections may certainly be urged against the doctrine of a double sense of Scripture; at any rate, against a double sense of such sort that one is of a wholly different nature from the other. But it is not to be doubted or denied, that many sacred prophecies have embraced events of the past, which nevertheless still travail with blessing, and await a further and completer fulfillment. Many of the Old Testament predictions of the coming of the Christ, if not the most of them, embraced at the same time, and without distinction, what was partially fulfilled in his first coming, but is to be much more largely fulfilled at his second coming. Who can question that Haggai 2:6-7, has received some partial illustration in the first advent? Yet the Holy Spirit, in Hebrews 12:26, teaches us still to await its complete fulfillment. The inspired Peter informs us that the promise given, in Joel 2:28, has, in part, at least, been accomplished (Acts 2:47). And yet, surely, the word is big with blessed things for the future. Enoch's prophecy (Jude 14-15) may reasonably be supposed to have had some reference to the flood then impending, while its language yet directs us forward to the future coming of the Lord.
Bacon has well observed, that there is a "latitude which is agreeable unto divine prophecies, being of the nature of the Author, with whom a thousand years are but as one day, and therefore they are not fulfilled punctually at once, but have springing and germinant accomplishments throughout many ages, though the height or fullness of them may refer to some one age."
And it is altogether reasonable, and accordant with the nature of the subject, to agree, that something of this sort is to be found in the instance before us, giving us precursively and imperfectly the same things through the course of centuries, which are to be finally and perfectly consummated in the new administrations which the period of the great judgment is to bring forth.
Without questioning, therefore, that these foreshowings embrace the general spirit and tenor of the Church's history in this world, or that an imperfect and germinant fulfillment of the opening of these seals may be traced through the events of the past, I must yet refer their height and fulness altogether to the future, and assign them their complete fulfillment only in that momentous section of time, which intervenes between the termination of the present order, and the full establishment of the everlasting kingdom and reign of Christ and his saints over all the earth. With a very able and eloquent preacher of the early part of this century, I take the opening of these seals as significant of the Lion-Lamb's entry, by successive stages, upon the right and possession of the earth, and his actings of judicial power and sovereignty whereby he asserts and enforces his claim and title as the victorious kinsman of our fallen race, to the end that all its territory, kingdoms, peoples, and tongues may thenceforward be manifestly and in fact his forever. In other words, it sets before us the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ, in his relation to the world, and his administrations toward the nations, after his elect of the Church have been caught up from their trials and their graves to their heavenly thrones. It is the judicial proceeding of the Almighty Goel, to rid "the purchased possession" of the dynasties of wickedness, to cast out the rulers of the darkness of this world, to restore the earth to its proper fertility and peace, and to bring in the empire of righteousness and salvation.
The portion of the Apocalypse covered by these seven seals, includes everything in Revelation 5-20; the seventh seal taking in the seven trumpets, and the seventh trumpet, the seven last plagues, with the battle of the great day of God Almighty.
The period of time more directly covered by these seven seals, is that which lies between the assumption of the resurrected and translated saints of the first class, and the full instalment of the millennial order, when Satan is bound, the first resurrection completed, and the blessed and holy who have part in it reign with Christ as his kings and priests.
I have several times explained, that the first thing to be looked for in the great and marvelous transactions embraced in the consummation of all things, is the mysterious coming of the Lord Jesus to take those that wait and watch for him, with such of the dead as have fallen asleep in the same attitude. Good people are apt to be thinking of dying, and of being ready for death. But no true Christian has any right to count on dying. There is something that is more certain than death. There are some who will never die. Those who are alive and waiting for Christ when he comes, shall never taste of death. They shall be "taken" as Enoch was taken, as Elijah was taken, as Romanists allege that the Virgin Mary was taken, and as some say the Apostle John was taken. The words of Paul upon this point are too plain to be misunderstood. He says, "The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout ... and we which are alive and remain shall be caught up ... in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
I have no idea that a very large portion of mankind, or even of the professing Church, will be thus taken. The first translation, if I may so speak, will embrace only the select few, who "watch and pray always" that they "may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man" (Luke 21:36). "In that night there shall be two in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. Two shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left" (Luke 17:34,36). The idea is that the great body of the Church even, will be "left." And this assumption of the saints to immortality, which may occur any of these passing days or nights, and certainly is to be devoutly awaited as very near, is the first signal act by which the great period of the consummation is to be introduced. But it will not, of itself, materially change the ordinary course of earthly things. The world will still stand, with all its wicked populations, and its apostate churches. Indeed, then only will commence the time when evil shall rush unhindered to its highest bloom of daring and blasphemy. That which hindered, being taken away, "then shall that wicked be revealed ... whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved" (2 Thessalonians 2:7-10).
What immediately follows the translation of the elect saints, has two aspects: one as it relates to things in heaven, the other as it relates to things on earth. What relates to heaven, we have had described to us in the sublime vision of the Throne, the living ones, and the elders. What relates to earth, is set forth under the opening of these seven seals.
The exact number of years covered by what is described under these seals, is not specifically given; unless, indeed, this should be the mystic seventieth week of Daniel, as generally supposed by the fathers, and affirmed by many well-deserving modern interpreters. To the latter portion of this period, there is a specific duration assigned. A term of "forty and two months"-"a thousand two hundred and threescore days" (Revelation 11:3; 12:6)-"a time, times, and half a time," that is, a period of three years and a half-is several times mentioned; first, in reference to the treading down of the city by the Gentiles; second, in reference to the prophesying of the witnesses; third, in reference to the flight of the woman into the wilderness; and fourth, in reference to the beast's persecuting power. All these appear to be synchronous, and to fall very much, if not entirely, within the same period of time. And as the dominion of the beast ends with the battle of the great day, with which the action of the seals, trumpets, and vials sums up, we have only to date back from that consummation, to find at least three and a half years before the end, through which the opening of these seals is to run.
But it is quite manifest that this is not the entire period embraced. It is only under the seventh seal, and the sixth and seventh trumpets, that these three and a half years come in; showing that there must be a period preceding them, of not less than equal length for the foregoing six seals. And when we take into account how Daniel's seventieth week is divided, and that it is only the latter half of it that takes in those consummated impieties which mark the beast's reign, it is rendered almost certain, that three and a half years more are to be added before the last three and a half; thus making full seven years in all, as the space covered by these seals, and their included trumpets and vials.
Some have taken these numbers mystically, and so have made out a much longer period. But, I am persuaded, that no such elongation of these dates ever has had, or ever will have, an exact, or anything like a complete fulfillment. They are literal, not symbolic. And when we consider how intensely the number seven pervades this entire book, and connect its notes of time with those given in the book of Daniel, there appears to be sufficient reason to conclude, that just seven literal years are spanned by the transactions set forth under the opening of these seals; no less, and hardly anymore.
An important feature of doctrine is thus brought out, well worthy of notice as we pass. It is this, that the day of judgment, like the day of the Lord, is not a day limited to 24 hours, as people often erroneously imagine. All the acts described under these seven seals, are acts of judgment. Every scene is a judgment scene. The throne is a judgment throne. The agencies are all messengers of judicial power. Their operations are all connected with judicial awards. The finished work presents Satan and his world-powers vanquished, the saints in resurrection glory on their thrones, and the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ forever. There is another and final judgment scene, at the end of the thousand years; but all the elements of that, and more, are found in what is described under these seals, trumpets, and vials. Indeed, that is only the finishing up of what is here so vigorously begun. The one gives us the morning, and the other the evening, of the great day of judgment viewed as a whole. The judgment is not one simple act, but a series of varied administrations, which do not reach all alike, nor all at the same time. It begins at the house of God, before it at all touches the world, except in a mere symptomatic way. And when it comes upon the present world-powers, it takes in many diverse and successive acts, running through the course of years, and finally concludes a thousand years afterward, by the consignment of Satan and all his seed to "the lake of fire," which is "the second death" (Revelation 20:14-15).
We accordingly have in the events set out under the opening of these seals, the characteristics and leading facts of a grand transition period. A time of judgment is always a time of transition. It is the closing up of one order of things, and the opening of another. And this is eminently the nature of the transactions here described. They show us how the present world-powers, with their Satanic intermixtures, are to terminate, and the exact particulars by and through which another and better order is to be reached; one which is finally, by still another putting forth of judicial energy, to be resolved and settled into what shall be disturbed no more. (from The Apocalypse: by Joseph A. Seiss)
With these remarks touching the scope of these seals, we proceed to the particulars described.