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In this state of things, the fifth seal is opened. Here the souls, (psuchas, lives, meaning here the blood of the martyrs,) under the altars, where they had been sacrificed, is noted, in figure, as crying to God for vengeance. This seems to be in allusion to the blood of the first martyr, Abel. “ The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.”
“ Blood has a voice to pierce the skies !
Revenge, the blood of Abel cries !"
The blood of the millions of martyrs, shed in pagan Rome, was thus calling for justice on that wicked empire! The inquiry is made by this blood, How long vindictive justice should be delayed? The reply informs, that it must be deferred yet for a time ; until more of their brethren (as though spoken to the souls of these martyrs), about to suffer as they had done, should be thus united with them. Their memories, in the mean time, should be blessed; while their souls should be peculiarly exalted in glory. Which things were denoted by white robes (emblems of victory and triumph,) being given to every one of them !
The history of these times gives the best comment upon this passage.
When the nine persecutions in the empire had taken place, as has been noted, another furious one was still pending : that under the Emperor Dioclesian, which was of ten years' continuance. As this was approaching, the saints would need the consolation furnished in our text.
The events of this seal furnish an implicit prediction of the revolution in the Roman Empire, which took place after the tenth persecution, which was then just at the door. In this, (which will be given under the next seal,) God took signal vengeance on the pagan emperors, and their supporters. God would, in a degree, avenge the blood of the martyrs on them who shed it, according to the cry in our text. He would make, on that generation, inquisitions for blood, in kind remembrance of his slaughtered children: and would do it upon a greater scale than in any of the antecedent seals. Great judgments had already been inflicted on the Roman persecutors, as has been shown. But these were so small, compared with what should then take place, that the martyrs were, in our text,
represented as feeling themselves to be unavenged. "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not avenge? This seems but a note preparatory to what should soon follow. And, as that is expressed in figures which are calculated to receive more than one fulfilment, (as may be shown so,) the fifth seal may be viewed as a kind of awful
preparatory hint of all the signal inquisitions for blood, which God would institute before his millennial kingdom ; while yet it had a primary allusion to events then soon to be accomplished.
Ver. 12. And I beheld, when he had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake: and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
13. And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
14. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
15. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every freeman, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;
16. And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17. For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand ?
This scene prefigured the revolution in the Roman empire (which took place in the fourth century) from paganism to Christianity, under the Christian emperor Constantine. We have here an avenging of the blood of the martyrs, indeed ; and given in language borrowed from the great judgment day, at the end of the world! I will give a concise history of the scene to which it primarily alluded.
About the year 320, soon after the tenth most bloody persecution in the Roman empire, under the Emperor Dioclesian, Constantine, upon the death of his father Constantius, came to the imperial throne. Galerius, who had succeeded Dioclesian, was emperor of one part of the western branch of the empire. And he was inclined still to carry on the Dioclesian persecution. But he was smitten with an incurable disease; as also with a consciousness, that it was from an angry God, for his persecutions of the Christians. He hence, by a public edict, put an end to the persecution in his part of the empire, and desired the Christians to pray for his restoration to health! But he soon died ! I will make thine enemies come bending unto thee !” Maxentius had got himself declared emperor in his stead; and a large faction followed him.
Constantine embraced the Christian religion, and formed a determination to vindicate it. He accordingly marched an army against Maxentius; who met him with an army of 188,000 men. But, in a great battle, Maxentius was defeated; and Constantine became sole emperor of the west. In the eastern wing of the empire, Maximin and Licinius were emperors. The former made war upon the latter, but was defeated with the loss of his army. Maximin, upon this his defeat, put to death many of his pagan priests and soothsayers, as impostors, and false flatterers. Soon after, as he was meditating another batile with Licinius, he was divinely smitten with incurable torments, and blindness, and died in despair,---confessing the guilt of his hostility to the people of God!
Licinius was now the only emperor of the east, as Constantine was of the west. The former was disposed yet to carry on the persecution of the Christians. A war soon broke out between him and Constantine, in which Licinius was utterly defeated, and was forced to flee. gain returning, he renewed the contest; but was again defeated with the loss of 100,000 men, and himself taken prisoner. Soon after, for an attempt upon the life of Constantine, he was put to death. Constantine became now the sole emperor of the whole empire, and removed the seat of it to Byzantium in the east; which he called, from is own name, Constantinople.
Constantine now new-modelled the government of the
empire; abolishing all the powers of paganism; establishing Christianity as the religion of the empire; and placing the administration of the government in the hands of Christian prefects! The power of persecution was now destroyed. “ The great lights, so called, of the heathen world,” says Bishop Newton, “ the powers, civil and ecclesiastical, were all eclipsed and obscured. The heathen emperors and Cesars were slain ; the heathen priests and augurs were extirpated. The heathen officers and magistrates were removed. The heathen temples were demolished; and their revenues were appropriated to better uses !"
Here the secular Roman beast received his death wound, in his sixth-his imperial-head, and died; which death was to continue till these last days ; when the deadly wounded head was to be healed. (Rev. xiii. 3, 12, 14.) This long interim was to be occupied by the rise and predominance of the papal beast; as will be shown on Rev. xiii. 11-18.
The figures in our text, to denote this revolution, are prophetic and appropriate. The sun is a prophetic emblem of emperors and kings, or of first rulers. The moon, here, is a figure of their armies. The stars, of the various subordinate officers of a government. Hence the darkening of the sun, the turning to blood of the moon, and the falling of the stars, denote the various terrors of a revolution ; as might be shown from various passages in the prophets, and especially in the predictions of the battle of the great day ; of which event, the judgment of the sixth seal was a lively emblem. Joel ii. 10; “ The earth shall shake before them, the heavens shall tremble; the sun and the moon shall be dark; and the stars shall withdraw their shining.' Isaiah iv. 4; “ All the hosts of heaven shall be dissolved ; and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll; and all their hosts shall fall down, as the leaf falleth from off the vine; as a falling fig from a fig-tree.” Isaiah xiii. 10; For the stars of heaven, and the constellations thereof, shall not give their light; the sun shall be darkened at his going forth ; and the moon shall not cause her light to shine." Such is the language of the prophets, relative to most signal national judgments. As in the following: Isaiah ii. 19; “And they shall go into the holes of the rocks,
and into the caves of the earth, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth.” And Hos. X. 8 ; “ And they shall say to the mountains, Cover us; and to the hills, Fall on us."
Says the text, “For the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand ?" That revolution was a great day of God's wrath to the pagan empire; and the abetters of paganism were not able to stand. It was also a lively emblem and type of the battle of the great day of God, now not far future; and also of the end of the world. The language, therefore, which we find appropriated to the battle of that great day, and to the end of the world, was adopted by the prophetic Spirit, and applied to that typical event; not that it was an ultimate accomplishment of it; but because it held a conspicuous rank
among the types of it; as did also the destruction of Jerusalem. Both brought a day of God's wrath, indeed, upon antichristian enemies ; and afforded a solemn memento of the battle of the great day, and also of the end of the world!
In the event in our text, the pagan Roman beast died ! In a still greater fulfilment of the description there given, or in the battle of that great day of God, the same beast (having obtained the healing of his deadly wound, and, according to another prophetic figure, having arisen from the bottomless pit) goes into perdition ; and sinks, as a mighty millstone, into the depth of the sea, never to rise again before the Millennium. (See Dan. vii. 11; Rev. xix. 19; xi. 15; xvi. 17 ; xiv. 14, to end; and xviii. 21.)
In this scene, our text will receive a much more striking fulfilment, as to the import and amount of its figures, than in the event to which it primarily, and in its chronological order, applies. The imagery of the sixth seal is manifestly one of those prophetic descriptions, which allude to a rising course of events, as type and antitype, till they are fully accomplished in that last great day, for
which all other days were made! Hence such events are noted, as a coming of Christ ; - the great day of his wrath is come !" All such antecedent comings of Christ are but mystical, and not literal; and are thus but types of his last and literal coming to judge the world.