(1) And after these things . . Better, And after this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding fast the four winds of the earth, that there might not blow a wind upon the earth, nor upon the sea, nor upon any tree. In the sixth seal the winds had blown, and had shaken violently the fig-tree, causing its untimely figs to drop off: the untimely or winter figs represented those whose religious life was unequal to the strain of trial, and who failed in the crisis to which they were exposed. But is all the fruit shaken off? No; Christ had said that “if a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch;” but that those who abode in Him, purged by their trials, would bring forth more fruit, and the fruit which these bore was not a fruit easily shaken off, but fruit that should remain (John 15:6; John 15:5; John 15:16). They would not be as winter figs, easily torn from the boughs, for their strength was in God: before the stormy winds of manifold trials had blown they had been sealed with the seal of the living God. This is the scene which is brought before us in this chapter. In it the care of God, who restrains from violence the winds, that they should net shake too soon the immature fruit, the tokens by which the sealed are known and the meaning of their sealing are set forth. The chapter, in fact, answers the solemn question of the last chapter: “Who is able to stand?” The winds are clearly emblems of days of trouble or judgment; as the winds sweep away the chaff and clear the atmosphere, so do judgments try the ungodly, who are like the chaff which the wind driveth away: the storm of God’s judgments shakes the mountains and the wilderness, and strips the oaks of the forest. (Comp. Psalms 29) These winds of judgment are ready to blow from all quarters (four corners of the earth), but they are restrained till the servants of God are sealed. For passages where winds are used as emblems of judgment, see especially Jeremiah 49:36-37, “Upon Elam I will bring the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will bring evil upon them, even My fierce anger, saith the Lord.” Comp, also Daniel 7:2, “I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea.” But those tempests would not arise or shake a single leaf till the securing of God’s servants was accomplished.
“From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl stream in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Alleluia.”
The multitude are clothed with white robes, and carry palm branches in their hands. It has been thought that these are the emblems of victory; they doubtless are tokens of a triumph: it is the sacred rejoicing of the Israel of God. The imagery is drawn from the Feast of Tabernacles: just as the sealing reminded us of the protecting sign on the lintels of the houses of Israel in Egypt, so do these palm branches and songs of joy recall the ceremonies of the later feast. No imagery would be more natural to the sacred seer, and none more appropriate to his subject. The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated God’s care over them in the wilderness, and their gratitude for the harvest. The people forsook the houses, and dwelt in booths; the streets were full of glad multitudes who carried branches of palm, and olive, and myrtle; everywhere the sounds of rejoicing and singing were heard; “there was very great gladness” (Exodus 23:16; Leviticus 23:43; Nehemiah 8:14-17). The vision here shows us a far greater feast. “The troubles of the wilderness are ended, the harvest-home of the Church is come,” and God tabernacles (Revelation 7:15) among His servants.
The blessing, and the glory, and the wisdom,
And the thanksgiving,
And the honour, and the power, and the strength,
(Is) unto our God Unto the ages of the ages.
The seven-fold form of the doxology, which implies a divine completeness, is appropriate to this vision, which shows us the close of the Church’s agony, and is in itself a slight indication that the view which would limit the seals to some short period of Church history is incorrect, as it is assuredly inadequate.
“Silent was I, yet desire
Was painted in my looks; and thus I spake
My wish more earnestly than language could.”
—Paradiso, iv. 10-12.
The elder asks the question which he knows St. John would fain ask. These who are clothed in white robes, who are they, and whence came they? The question brings the white robes into prominence. Is it, as has been suggested, that the wonder of the seer is excited more by the emblem of holiness and innocence than anything else? He recognises the multitudes as men and women out of every nation and tribe of sinful humanity, and he sees them clothed in the garb of holiness. Who are these countless throngs of holy ones?
And he said to me . . .—Read, And he said to me, These are they who come (the present tense is used: these are those coming) out of the great tribulation. They are those who come, not all at once, but gradually. The saints of God are continually passing into the unseen world, and taking their place among the spirits of just men made perfect. They come out of the great tribulation. Are we to limit the expression to the special and peculiar afflictions of the last great trial? There is no doubt about the emphasis which the definite article (unfortunately, ignored in our English version) gives: it is the great tribulation; but while there may yet be in store for the Church of Christ trials so great that they may be called, in comparison with those which went before, the great tribulation, it yet seems out of harmony with the spirit of the Apocalypse and the complexion of this vision to limit the phrase to some special season of trial. Is not the great tribulation the tribulation which those must encounter who are on the side of Christ and righteousness, and refuse to receive the mark of worldliness and sin on their heart, conscience, and life? In all ages it is true that we must through much tribulation enter the Kingdom of God; and the vision here is surely not of those who will come safe out of some particular trials, but of the great multitude from every age and every race who waged war against sin, and who, in the midst of that protracted conflict, endured the great tribulation which is to continue until Christ’s return. And they washed (not “have washed,” for the washing was done during their earthly life) their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. The imagery is to be found in the Gospel and in the Epistle (John 13:8-11; and 1 John 1:7); its use here and in Revelation 1:5 (if the reading washed is to be preferred to loosed) points to a common authorship: the emblem of the blood which washes white, or cleanses, is not used with such distinctness elsewhere in the New Testament. It is, in St. John’s lips, but a following out of the twice-repeated words which he quotes from John the Baptist at the opening of the Gospel, when he proclaimed Christ to be “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” In that Lamb of God those who came out of great tribulation found the forgiveness and the spiritual power which gave them confidence and hope in the midst of life’s war and life’s weariness; for the man who knows that he is forgiven and that he is being helped to holiness is the man who thinks no fiery trial strange, but rejoices in the knowledge that his salvation is of God.