Revelation 15

We are now come to a new division of the book. The last three chapters (12, 13, 14.) formed a most important portion to themselves; they gave the whole history of the closing dealings of God, and of the last plans of Satan, as far as the present dispensation is concerned. And not only that, but before either Satan’s ways or God’s dealings were brought out, the hidden source of both was entered into. We saw in Revelation 12 the victorious man child born, and the dragon and his angels cast down from heaven. Thus we have two great parties in the scene with their chiefs opposed face to face. Whatever might have been the instruments of Satan’s power here below, seen in Revelation 13, and whatever the ways of God in His grace or in His judgments in Revelation 14, all flowed down from that man child, the object of Satan’s fear and hatred. Then we come to a new subject. There was a great wonder or sign spoken of in Revelation 12:1. Here it is said, “And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvellous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God.” We are resuming once more the course of historical events. Under the last trumpet you may remember the word was, “The nations were wroth, and thy wrath is come.” Now I think it must naturally strike any one that here God’s wrath is come, and the nations not merely angry but blaspheming to the last degree. So far each fresh stroke of God, instead of humbling man, only drew out this intensity of enmity against the Lord. The seventh trumpet brought us up to the close in a general way; and here we have some of the details, but not all. There were two parties described under the vials that we have more particularly afterwards. Revelation 17 refers to Babylon and the beast in their mutual relations. In Revelation 18 we have the destruction of Babylon, and in Revelation 19 the judgment of the beast.

There is another remark also that I must make. Revelation 14 gives us these events all together. We had there what may be called the religious actings of God — His dealing with man on the earth, as accountable for the use or abuse of revealed light, and responsible to own and worship God alone. These vials take up rather the outward civil history or secular condition of man, though the same thing may, in certain cases, have both a religious bearing and a secular one. For instance, look at Babylon: she is evidently the great corrupt and corrupting power in religion; but this does not hinder Babylon from meddling largely in the things of the world. And, in fact, this is one of the evils which form Babylon — the bringing in the spirit of the world even into spiritual questions, and thus producing confusion, hateful to God and most seductive to men. Hence we get Babylon in Revelation 14 as well as in Revelation 16. Chapter 14 gives us a summary of God’s dealings at the end of the age in respect of religious matters, whether bright or dark, grace, testimony, and judgment. It thus helps us a good deal as to putting the closing events in the order in which they come to pass. For instance, the fall of Babylon is the third link brought before us in the chain of chapter 14. First, we see the complete remnant of godly suffering Jews — a holy remnant, associated by grace with the Lamb on mount Zion. Then follows the testimony of everlasting glad tidings to the earth and all nations. And thirdly, there is the fall of Babylon. On the other hand, in the vials the fall of Babylon is the last of the seven. From this we gather that the judgments set forth by the preceding six vials must be before the fall of Babylon. That is, the first six vials may be successively accomplished while the Jewish remnant is being formed, and the everlasting gospel is going out to the Gentiles. The last vial involves the fall of Babylon, which answers to and is the third link in the chain of events given us in chapter 14. This is of importance in order to hinder confusion. The warning as to the worship of the beast, the pronounced blessedness of those who died in the Lord, the harvest, and the vintage of the earth, are events clearly all subsequent to Babylon’s fall.

Having had then the general and orderly view of God’s ways both in mercy and judgment, now we learn in Revelation 16 a part of these ways, the details of some of which are connected with Revelation 14:8, and perhaps simultaneous with what precedes that verse. It must not be supposed, therefore, that the vials take place after chapter 14; the earlier ones might be poured out while the remnant there spoken of is being formed, and the testimony going on. Or they might occur rapidly after these, and before the fall of Babylon; but certainly the last vial includes the fall of Babylon; and its fall is as clearly before the very solemn events which follow that announcement in the latter part of chapter 14.

But now let us look a little at the scene introductory to the vials. “I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire.” This is a type borrowed, though with changes, from the temple.95 The tabernacle had the laver, the temple its molten sea — a larger vessel, but of a similar nature in which the priests used to wash their feet and hands when they went in to do the service of the Lord. In this case it is a sea of glass, and therefore not used for purification. It was not a sea of water, but was solid. Its being of glass indicates a state of firm and settled purity. It was not that which was used to cleanse, but the image of purity that nothing can defile. These saints are no longer in the circumstances where they have need of cleansing through the washing of water by the word. That was over. Now it was “a sea of glass mingled with fire;” showing plainly through what circumstances those connected with that sea had passed. They had experienced fiery tribulation, they had glorified God in the fires. This plainly does not refer to the church. “In the world ye shall have tribulation” does apply to us. But this refers to special tribulation — “the tribulation” of which scripture frequently speaks. “I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire. and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image” (clearly, then, they are contemporaries of the beast), “and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God.” Thus what is referred to here is not washing in the sea, but standing on it. Their earthly circumstances characterize them; but the scene of conflict is now past. The Spirit of God anticipates all which marks those who had been troubled by the beast, but who are viewed as victorious over him. They were persons who had been cleansed already; they had done with the present scene, and were now out of it all. They were standing on the sea of glass. Not only this, but they had “harps of God.” That is, they are occupied with divine joy and praise, the contrast of all they had passed through.

And what is offered in lieu of the temple-sea? The burning lava of a volcano, or overflow of French revolutionary fury inundating the anti-Christian territory of continental Europe; and, naturally, the harpers represent the triumphs of living revived Protestantism in insular England under Wilberforce now, as formerly there had been for others under Augustine and Luther! As a sea of lava or even of water would be an incongruous place whereon to stand, one cannot be surprised that “on the sea” has been changed into “by,” which I admit the preposition will bear. On my view, however, its more ordinary meaning holds good. Mr. E. lays stress on ἐκ τοῦ θ. κ. τ. λ. as implying not only conquest over, but separation from, the party conquered. Can it be because his supposed harpers were not in any way within the fiery, scene of tribulation? I should rather infer that they had been in the furnace, but were come victors out of all. Again, the reasoning on the present participle is unsound (H. A., iii. pp. 465-467), for nothing is more common when accompanied by the article than its abstract use. Thus, to take the first which presents itself, in Matt. 2:20, οἱ ζητοῦντες certainly does not imply that they were still in the field. Compare also Rev. 7:14, said of a multitude which is anticipatively viewed as already in the rest of God. It is, I believe, just the same in ch. 15

I would just observe, though it be a slight circumstance, that there is a short clause here which should be left out. It is said in verse 2, “Them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name.” But the clause “and over his mark” has no business here whatever. The same thing occurs in Revelation 13:17: “That no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” Now the truth is that the little word “or” inserted there before the clause “the name of the beast” ought to disappear. The difference in the sense is that “the mark” might be either the name of the beast or the number of his name; not some third thing distinct from these two, as the ordinary text might suggest. There were two ways in which the beast marked his followers; one was by his name, and the other by the number of his name: but there would be no sense in saying, “the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” The number was his mark, though not the only one; there was the name besides — the one, I suppose, being closer and more appropriate than the other. Here, then, were those (Rev. 15) who had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over the number of his name. Even in the English Bible the word “and over the number” is printed in italics, and only adds to the confusion with the words “over his mark.” I refer to it to show that wherever there is even such a little word as “or” introduced by man into the scripture, the sense is impaired. In the language which the Spirit uses, it is but a letter that makes the difference; but you cannot even put a letter into the word of God without so far injuring its beauty and perfectness. Through the mercy of God, His children may get little harm through such blemishes; but it is in part because they do not think enough about it. If they were to work a system out of them, they might fall into some serious mistake in not a few cases. But happily (this is the way God mercifully shields them) they do not really receive the false doctrine; they do not know what it means, and therefore leave it. But evidently God is little honoured where persons merely escape error because they do not understand it. It is the mercy of God thus to preserve His people from evil; but it is His overruling hand rather than the intelligent guidance of the Spirit. The book of Revelation has suffered more than any other from the carelessness of man; and as we are looking into its contents, and it seems desirable for God’s children to have clear thoughts about His word, I thought it better to notice it, however small a matter it may appear. I remember having myself been perplexed to make out the difference between the mark of the beast and its name and its number. But having examined the question more closely, I found that there was really nothing to decide about. A little fox had slipped in and spoiled the vine. In short, the mark was not something different from the name or its number, but was the general term for both — the name expressing probably a more intimate and entire subjection to the beast than the number of his name.

Those who had won the victory over the beast were not his creatures or slaves; far from it — they were the servants of God. Here they were seen standing in conscious victory, outside all the scene of their conflicts, having the harps of God. And they sing: it is intelligent praise. “They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” There is a double character in their praise, quite different from the song of the elders. It is very blessed, but not the same thing. The strain of the elders was far deeper. These saints are not here spoken of as priests of God, much less the heads of heavenly priesthood; nor have they the emblems of royal dignity. They sing the song of Moses. They were true saints, but with an undoubtedly Jewish character. They sing the song of the Lamb too. If they did not know the Saviour, they would not be saints at all. But withal they sing the song of Moses. They will not stand exactly in the Christian position that we now enjoy. They will be in circumstances of trial, when the church has passed out of the scene into heaven. But still the Lord will have a company of saints then who will suffer for Him even unto death; for the beast has power to slay — and it may be thus that, by their own blood as well as by the blood of the Lamb,96 they gain the victory over him.

Here they are seen at rest, like Israel of old, on the triumphant side of the Red Sea, to which there seems an allusion; as the plagues of the next chapter clearly refer to those that fell upon the land of Egypt. “They sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, O Lord God the Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of the nations” (verse 3). Now if we look at Psalm 103:7, we find that the Holy Ghost brings into prominence these two things — the ways of Jehovah and His acts. “He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel.” The distinction is between the deep hidden ways of the Lord which Moses knew, and the public acts which were conspicuous before all Israel. Here these saints take up, not His ways first, but His displayed works. “Great and marvellous are thy works, O Lord God the Almighty.” And then they rise to celebrate His ways. “Just and true are thy ways, thou King of the nations” — I must say so, for King of saints is a thing unknown in any part of the Bible. But King of nations, given in the margin, is most true. It is a reference to Jeremiah 10: “Thou art great (verse 6), and thy name is great in might. Who would not fear thee, O King of nations?”

Just to show the general truth, I would observe that, while Christ is King, yea King of kings and Lord of lords, and while it is our joy to acknowledge it (for Christians indeed are the only persons now who rightly know the Lord Jesus to be King), yet it is remarkable how the Holy Ghost avoids calling Him King in relation to the church. I am aware that well-known hymns may speak of Him as “Our Prophet, Priest, and King.” Scripture often calls Him King, but never in that relation to us.97 Of course, the object of God’s word is not to weaken our subjection to Christ. Whatever weakens that comes not from the Spirit, but from Satan. But is it not plain, that the relation of a king and people is not so close and binding, neither is it so full and all-embracing in its authority, nor does it involve such elements of affection, as the relationship of Bridegroom or of the Head? And this is the way in which scripture views the church. There is the deepest and most constant subjection, but it is that of members to their Head, of the bride to the Bridegroom. Thus is the church subject to Christ. It is true that we are translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son, but in what capacity? He has made us kings in it. So we are represented as singing in the first chapter of this very prophecy, “Unto him that loveth us, and hath washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father.”

While it is perfectly certain, then, that we are in the kingdom, yet are we there not as subjects, though assuredly subject. We joyfully own Christ as our Lord, whose grace has made us kings with him, and not as a mere people at a distance under Him. This in no way lessens our responsibility to obey Him, any more than it takes from His glory. It puts us in the place of showing obedience on a firmer ground and from higher motives; it is not the weakness of flesh under law, but the heart purified by faith and strengthened by grace. He fills us with a sense of the glory, of which we are joint-heirs with Himself. He raises us in hope to the throne; but the effect is that, even in heaven, we shall fall down and cast our crowns before Him. He loves that our obedience should take as it were the form of worship. So we see how the Lord preserves these two things intact. On the one hand, He delights that we should look up and know that the Lord Jesus is ever immeasurably above us: but then, on the other hand, Christ has set us now in earnest of the Spirit, as by and by in possession, on thrones, that He may show that it is not merely as servants, nor as a people that we are subject, but as those whom His perfect and divine love has associated with Himself; for we are one with Him. He will put us on thrones around Him — on His own throne; but even then subjection to Christ can never disappear. Never will it be anything else, whether in the kingdom or in the eternal state. Wherever you look, never can the church so far forget what she owes her Lord and Bridegroom as to wish it otherwise. It were to abuse His grace to take from His glory; and the church must and ought to resent that. If the elders at the sight only of His taking the book fall down before the Lamb and worship, much more should the thought of any indignity offered to Him call forth the strongest feelings of indignation and horror. The church may be and is loved of Christ; but in anywise to take equal around with Him were to display that spirit of antichrist, “whereof we have heard that it shall come, and even now already is it in the world.”

“Just and true are thy ways, thou King of nations.” If I apprehend aright, the reason why “nations” are introduced here is that these vials were about to be poured out very particularly upon the Gentiles. Under the trumpets, and in Revelation 12-14, we had the Jews, or at least the Jewish remnant, in an especial way the object of covenant mercy. The very phrase (Rev. 11), “the ark of the covenant,” connects itself with that nation; for the covenant was made with them. Therefore we saw too that the woman in the next chapter (Rev. 12) represented Israel. Then we had the Remnant of godly Jews. (Rev. 14) But now these saints are celebrating the righteous ways of God with the Gentiles, or nations. He is King of nations — not merely of the Jews. Jewish relationships appear in both, but they are distinct visions, opened each by a very different sign.

“Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments were made manifest.” The word used for “holy” here is an unusual one. It is the same that is used where scripture speaks of the mercies of David, and its Hebrew counterpart is frequently found in the Psalms. For there are two words in both languages to express holiness. There is the common word for “holy,” which, for instance, occurs in Rev. 4 “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” It always implies separation from evil — absolute separation. The holiness spoken of here implies mercy, which is quite another thought. We are about to hear of the vials, and the first thought would be, “how dreadful!” God’s wrath is going to be fulfilled. But who and what is the God whose wrath is about to be consummated? He whose holiness is full of mercy. “Thou only art holy.” It is the holiness of mercy. “For all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments were made manifest.” They look through the judgments, and they see the end always is that “the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy.” So that, though this storm of judgment may be about to fall, they look to the end from the beginning, and they celebrate accordingly the holiness of the One who in judgment remembers mercy. No doubt there must be wrath, and God must complete it; because the first outpouring of it will only make men more hardened. But let it be observed, it is not a question of Christ; there is no such thing as the wrath of the Lamb here, not even in men’s minds; it is the wrath of God. In Revelation 14 He who reaps the harvest is the Son of man. But here God acts according to His own part, before Christ comes from heaven to execute wrath. This indicates that the vials end before the final judgments of chapter 14 commence, because the close of the chapter shows us the Son of man coming Himself to execute judgment.

And therefore they can say as they look up, “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord? . . . for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments were made manifest” (verse 4). Another important truth; for, as we are told in Isaiah 26, as long as God deals in mercy, what does man? He takes advantage of it, and refuses to “learn righteousness.” But the time comes when the Lord will lift up His arm in judgment; and what then? “When thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.” So here, “All nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments were made manifest.” Such would be the ultimate result.

The prophet again looks, “And the temple98 of the tabernacle of the testimony in heaven was opened” (verse 5). Mark the difference. In Revelation 11:19 (which introduces the scene of Revelation 12-14 before the vials) the temple was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant seen; but no ark appears now. There it was the fit pledge of the security of God’s faithfulness — of His unchanging purposes towards His people Israel. But here His enemies are in question rather than His people; and there is nothing but the tabernacle of the testimony, which is inaugurated as it were in judgments on the men of the earth. It is opened for wrath as yet, not for gospel triumphs. It is God’s testimony judicially to the condition of man. Man is guilty: what then could result? “The seven angels came out of the temple.” And terrible to say, they come out of that in which no ark was now seen. And what would be, what is, the effect? Nothing but wrath — the more awful because it flows from the sanctuary. They “came out of the temple, having the seven plagues.” This was all that God could do for man now. “Clothed in pure and white linen, and having their breasts girded with golden girdles. And one of the four living creatures” — the great presiding executors of the providential judgments of God — “gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials.” The word means bowls or cups, and is taken from the vessels used for pouring out drink-offerings, etc., before the Lord. It is not drink-offerings now, but wrath coming down from God — “seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth for ever and ever. And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from his power; and no one was able to enter into the temple, till the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled.” Thus, neither present worship of God nor intercession was any longer possible. It was vain for any one to attempt entering there: the smoke of the fire of God’s righteous anger filled the temple, the smoke proving the fire that was there. Thus there was no possibility for any one, not even for a priest, to enter. None could draw near now: wrath, the smoke of judgment, filled it. Just as at Sinai, where smoke is represented as going up from the mountain as the smoke of a furnace; and as in Psalm 18, “There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured.” So now there is the image of God’s offended majesty against sin. There was nothing He looked upon here below that called for mercy on their behalf. The time was past for intercession. Accordingly the judgments rolled forth, and the wrath of God is finished (verse 6-8).

95 Simple as this may appear, the force of the sea of glass has been, in my judgment, entirely misunderstood both here and in Rev. 4 by Mr. Elliott an others. Thus, in the Horae Apoc., i. pp. 84, 85, the singular error of Vitringa is adopted, which confounds it with the firmament like the terrible crystal of Ezekiel; and in a note it is objected to the true reference, (1) That John is describing what was in the inner sanctuary, not in the court without; (2) That it is represented as of glass, not brazen; and (3) That there is no allusion to the layer in any of the Apocalyptic visions. The reply is obvious. 1. The Spirit of God distinctly applies the position of souls under the altar in Rev. 6 to the souls of martyrs in heaven. Now, the altar and the laver were equally in the court. Compare also Rev. 8 where both altars are found in the same heavenly scene, in contradistinction to the earth. 2. The vessel is not denied to he made of glass, but the meaning is that the sea, or what answered to it, was of glass, not water. 3. The last is not a reason, but an assumption of the very question. I should be disposed to put the converse, and to ask, whether it would not be strange in the midst of temple — scenery so marked to have nothing answering to the molten sea. If the “sea” here be the counterpart of the “sea” in Kings and Chronicles, then the layer is alluded to in these visions. Next, it is agreed (H. A., iii. pp. 468, 469) that, were the “sea” in Rev. 15 a “re-mention” of that in Rev. 4, the definite article ought to have been prefixed; nay, that even on its first mention it was entitled to the article because of its notoriety. Here again the answer is manifest. The seven golden lamp-stands of Rev. 1 nobody doubts to be an allusion to the well-known candlestick of the Jewish sanctuary, and yet there is no article on their first occurrence. If the reason of its omission here, as distinguished from the altars and the ark, is due to the striking difference between them (the Jewish one being single and seven-branched, the Apocalyptic consisting of seven separate lamps), the game remark applies to our matter; for water was the point in the Jewish temple — sea, glass is as express in the Apocalyptic, because the purifying of those in relation with it was complete. So again, it is no wonder that in Rev. 15 the article is not prefixed, seeing that another change appears there. It is for the first time a sea “mingled with fire”, — emblematic of the excessively severe trial through which the victors had passed. The analogy of Apocalyptic usage also confirms this; for the “beast” is anarthrous in Rev. 13:1, 17:3, though, as I agree with Mr. E., it is the same power already mentioned in Rev. 11:7.

96 Of course, the Lamb’s blood alone avails for sin with God.

97 Mr. Elliott hesitatingly inclines to “King of ages” in his text) H. A., iii. p. 473) up to the last edition; but in his note, supported by C and a Paris cursive, Coislin 202, with the Vulgate and other versions, he ventured the opinion that the (undoubtedly false) vulgar reading ἁγίων seems “best of all to suit the context.” To me this reluctance to bow to the best reading ἐθνῶν (supported by the Alex., Porph. and Vat. uncials, forty-five cursives, the AEthiopic, Arabic of the Polyglotts, Coptic, not to speak of the correction in the Sinai MS., Slav. MSS., Greek and some Latin fathers) is not happy. I am glad however to see that he omits this, and seems content with the better authorities in his fifth edition. Page 461 by a misprint gives C as well as A for εθνων: it should be B.

98 It is extraordinary that the author of the Horae Apoc. should say that ναός or temple is sometimes used more largely of the whole, including the altar-court; stranger still that he should cite Rev. 11:1, 2, in proof, seeing that the altar and the outer court are so expressly distinguished there (as I believe always). There is another word to comprehend ill, namely, ἱερόν, which is never used in the Apocalypse, though it occurs repeatedly in other parts of the New Testament. So also the door of the tabernacle and the hanging at the court-gate are not confounded in scripture.