The sixth seal begins where the fifth ends; that is, from the year of Christ 311, in which that terrible persecution of ten years ceased.
The event of this seal is a wonderful commotion of heaven and earth, by which that marvellous change of the heathen Roman state, by Constantine the Great and his successors, the standard-bearers of the Lamb is represented; that is to say, all the gods of the Gentiles, shaken from their heaven, their pontiffs and their priests degraded from their offices, unhallowed, cast down, and for ever deprived of their revenues; the temples, fanes, and images of demons throughout the whole Roman world ruined, overthrown, burnt, and demolished. In addition to this, emperors, kings, and rulers, who had undertaken to succour their gods in such extreme perils, to proclaim war against the ensign-bearers of Christ, to combat with immense forces, and even when subdued in battle, to renew the war with their utmost strength, were slain with unusual slaughter, routed, and dispersed; until at length, in complete despair, no one could be found who would bring assistance to the Roman religion falling with such a crash. So that within the compass of a few words, I think I see comprised whatever the Holy Spirit meant to describe by those sublime allegories under this seal. And this is the first completion of that victory of Christ, of which the foundation was laid in the first seal; to which the seals which have preceded it have been subservient, by pointing out in what state of the empire it should come to pass, by the presignified distinctions of the time which passed away in the interval. It now remains that we should apply the assigned interpretation to the several parts of the prophetic allegory, and should show the meaning of it.
|And I looked when he opened the sixth seal, and behold there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as a sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood, and the stars of heaven fell upon the earth, as a fig-tree casteth forth its unripe fruit, when it is shaken by a strong wind, and the heaven departed as a book, when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places; and the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every slave, and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and rocks of the mountains; and they said unto 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! for the great day of his wrath is come, and who can stand before him?'|
These are accustomed images of very horrid slaughters, and (if I may so speak) of an entire subversion of the state of things, used by the prophets, after the manner of the east, as their figures and pictures likewise are by our poets. So Jerem. c. iv. v.23, &c. paints the fall of Judea, as if every thing was about to return again into ancient chaos. |I beheld the earth,| says he, |and behold it was without form and void, and the heavens, and there was no light in them. I looked at the mountains, and lo they were moved, and all the hills were disturbed.| In like manner Joel, c. ii. v.10, says of the horrid devastation of the same land by the army of northern locusts: |At his face the earth trembled; the heavens also were moved, the sun and moon were darkened, and the stars withdrew their splendour.| But we must treat distinctly of every part. |Behold,| says he, |there was a great earthquake;| in the Greek seismos, that is, a commotion of heaven and earth, as is manifest from what follows; for the Latin word terræmotus is not equal to the force of the Greek. Now, an earthquake of that kind, according to the testimony of the apostle, Heb. c. xii. upon the passage in Haggai, |Yet once more will I shake the heavens and the earth,| denotes the removing of those things which are shaken; which may be confirmed by the same prophet, v.21 and 22 of the same chapter, where he himself interprets this parable exegetically: |I will shake the heavens and the earth, and I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the heathen,| &c. We therefore shall consider this commotion of earth and heaven, in this place as elsewhere in the Apocalypse, as the ruin of states, and as their entire subversion.
Now, the object of this revolution, as of the former events under the seals, is the Roman empire; but not as politically governed by the Cæsars, (for in this form it was not yet dissolved,) but as subject to Satan and his angels the demons, under the name of religion. This demonarchy of the Roman empire, the tempest which lowers in this seal, will eventually overthrow, and dissipate with a mighty crash.
|And the sun and the moon became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;| that is, by the ellipsis of an adjective, red as blood. This is a periphrasis of the eclipse of the luminaries, in which the sun is wont to appear dark, but the moon ruddy. Similar to which is that of Isaiah respecting the vengeance on Babylon: |The sun shall be obscured in his rising, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.| Sept. |shall not give her light.| Isa. c. xiii.10. Matt. c. xxiv.29. Nor has that of the same prophet, c. xxiv. any other sense, according to the opinion of Aben Ezra, concerning the slaughter with which the Lord, when about to reign in Jerusalem, (exactly as in this seal,) should visit the host of heaven on high, and the kings of the earth on the earth. |The moon,| says he, |shall blush, and. the sun shall be ashamed,| (that is, each, as if it covered its face for shame, shall be clothed with darkness,) |when the Lord of Hosts shall reign in Mount Sion, and in Jerusalem, and before his ancients gloriously.| But what have these things to do, you will say, with the Roman demonarchy? Attend, and I will tell you. In the prophets, (as you will find also by and by in the following visions,) every kingdom and body of empire represents the world; that the parts, likewise, the heavens, and the earth, and stars, may correspond with that image. To prove which, (not to mention any other passages,) that single place in Isaiah is sufficient, c. li. v.15. |I am the Lord thy God, who divided the sea, (namely, the red sea,) and his waves roared; the Lord of Hosts is his name. And I put my words in thy mouth,| (that is, I gave thee my law,) |and I covered thee with the shadow of my hand, that I might plant the heavens, and lay the foundation of the earth;| that is, that I might make thee a kingdom, or political world, |and I might say unto Sion, Thou art my people.|
The subject treated of is the emancipation by which God delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt, that he might, of that people, found for himself a kingdom or republic in the promised land. From whence it will not be difficult to collect what is meant in the same prophet, c. lxv. and lxvi. by the new heaven and the new earth, namely, a new world of the same kind.
According to this image, then, heaven, agreeably to the prophetic idea, will denote whatever is eminent in the universality of any kingdom or republic; the earth, on the contrary, what is lowest; the stars, those who obtain and fill a place in that exalted station. By which construction, the sun and moon, being the principal lights of heaven, the former will indicate the first and chief majesty and dignity of the kingdom, the latter the next in order to it; which indeed is so true, that the Chaldee paraphrast on the prophets substitutes afterwards, for the sun and moon, the kingdom and glory; as Isaiah, c. lx. v.20. Jerem. c. xv. v.9.
Let the sun, then, in the Roman kingdom of idols, in right of supremacy, be the dragon himself, or Satan, especially since from him the Holy Spirit, c. xii. denominates the whole Roman empire in the state in which he was treating of it -- the seven-headed red dragon, as we shall there see.
The moon, the second luminary of this heaven, you may call the supreme pontificate, annexed to the imperatorial majesty, even from its first origin, and, as it were, a part of it; or, if you will, the emperor, as the pontifex of Satan, with the whole pontifical college, who, with the emperor as their head, formed one body, and they presided over the religious rites of the gods, and over the whole of the republic, and were not liable to render an account to the authority of the senate, or of any one as superior to themselves, and therefore in this kingdom were not undeservedly to be considered as second to the dragon himself. It is not always necessary, I confess, that so accurate an explanation of every thing in allegories of this kind should be required; but when it can be done, let us apply every minute particular. The sun then of which we have been speaking became dark at that time, and suffered an eclipse, and obscuration of his baneful majesty, when the Roman emperors, having abjured him by baptism, with all his angels, pomps, and worship, dedicated themselves to Christ, the sun of righteousness. The sun being thus darkened and deprived of light, how could the moon, which borrows her light from the sun, be secure? And that very thing, or the office of pontifex maxims, Constantine, Constantius, Valentinian, Valens, immediately rejected, as it was fit they should, unwilling from thenceforward to work for the devil. The name, however, at which you may be surprised, they did not on that account despise, but retained for a short time inscribed among their titles. Gratian first refused the title, as well as the pontifical garments, when offered to him, according to custom, by the pontiffs, as unworthy a Christian man; (a good act, which deserves to be recorded.) And this indeed was a change of such importance, that the Holy Spirit will thenceforth consider the Roman Cæsar, thus divested of the pontificate, as a new head of the Roman beast and king, as we shall hear in c. xvii. But still this moon shone with some light, though melancholy and weak, till Theodosius the First, that destroyer of heathenism, took away at length the pontifical college itself, with the whole remaining crowd of priests, all their revenues being confiscated, by one edict, to the treasury. Now then was the time when Satan must seek another pontifex maximus for himself. But I proceed to the remaining circumstances.
|And the stars of heaven fell on the earth, as a fig-tree casts her unripe figs when shaken by a great wind, and the heaven departed as a book when it is rolled up.| Or, |the heaven vanished away,| &c. That is, the stars of heaven disappeared, as letters vanish from a book rolled up in the manner of the ancients. For there is an ellipsis of the former substantive, on both sides common to the Hebrew language, as Deut. c. xx. v.19; 2 Kings, c. xviii. v.31; and elsewhere frequently to be found; so that this passage of the disappearance of the heaven, and that of the fall of the stars, mutually explain each other, and ought not to be separated from one another, as erroneously pointed, but ought to be included within the same comma. Indeed, the whole passage being from the thirty-fourth chapter of Isaiah, v.4, where, evidently under the same image, though in an inverse order, the Holy Spirit paints the slaughter and ruin of the kingdom of Edom, -- like this, -- a kingdom of idols.
|The heavens,| (says he,) |shall be rolled up like a book, and the whole host of them, (that is, the stars,) shall fall as a leaf from the vine, and as a deciduous fruitling from the fig-tree;| which sentence the Apocalyptical Spirit wished to render still clearer by the double addition of the words, apechoristhe, |it departed,| and hupo megalou anemou seiomene, |shaken by a great wind.| Moreover, Obadiah, Jeremiah, c. xlix. from v.7 to 22; Ezekiel, c. xxxv. through the whole chapter, and c. xxv. v.12, treat of the same Edomitish ruin, with circumstances not more mild than Isaiah, which I notice on this account, lest any one should think that the description of Isaiah is suited only to the great day of universal judgment.
But now, to return to the Apocalypse. The stars were the Roman heaven of deities, both the gods themselves, the chiefs of that kingdom, under Satan their prince, and the nobles, the priests, though of inferior rank; for even the stars differ from other stars in order and sublimity. These, therefore, are those who, in this wonderful commotion of the Roman state, shaken from their seats, |fell on the earth as a fig-tree scatters her unripe fruit, when it is shaken by a high wind.|
Nor will this interpretation of the stars as of gods and priests of the gods, excite so much surprise in him who remembers that the gods of the heathen are every where spoken of in sacred Scripture as the host of heaven, and by Daniel, that the priests and elders of the glorious land, or of the people of Israel, whom Antiochus Epiphanes had cast to the earth, are called by that name. |He magnified himself (says he,) against the host of heaven, and cast down to the earth some of the host and of the stars, and trampled upon them.| What he impiously did against the people of the true God, the very same the Christian emperors did against the people of the dragon; with this difference, however, that in the former case there was only one chief of the host of heaven, the Lord Jehovah, who made heaven and earth, against whom, though Antiochus might magnify himself, he could not disturb him in heaven; but in the latter case, there were many chiefs or demons in the Roman heaven, whom all the emperors who bore the standard of Christ, did utterly overthrow. Add to this, that the above exposition may be confirmed by the Synchronism of the Dragon cast down with his attendants from heaven. Chap. xii. |The dragon fought and his angels, but they prevailed not, neither was there place found any longer in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out; that old Serpent called the Devil and Satan.| -- |And his angels (that is, demons worshipped under the name of gods,) were cast out with him.| It follows, -- |And every mountain and island were moved out of their places.| Mountains and islands might perhaps be taken for persons of higher or lower conditions of life, who are enumerated in the very next verse, unless the word Island should be thought less favourable to such an interpretation. It might, therefore, seem more probable, -- if, indeed, it has a reference to this subject, -- that both point out men of higher condition which are eminent in each; the mountains on the earth, the islands in the sea. But what if we understand by islands here, not lands rising in the midst of waters, but edifices, of whatever kind they are called, which, surrounded by a public or private enclosure, are not used in common with neighbouring buildings? May we not then take both mountains and islands for the temples and shrines of idols, overthrown by this whirlwind, throughout the Roman world? For any one may see how conformable the notion of mountains is to an interpretation of this sort, who is not ignorant that it was customary for idolaters to build altars and shrines to their gods in the more lofty places. Whence, in every part of the Old Testament, the name of high-places is very frequent; nay, in Jeremiah, c. iii. v.23, the names of hills and mountains for the temples of idols. |Surely, (says he,) the hills and multitude of the mountains were vain.| Now islands for temples are not inconsistent with a similar interpretation, since it is very appropriate to temples to resemble islands, and they are not polluted by communion, or even a contact with the walls of other edifices. Supposing, however, it should not be satisfactory, that one and the same thing should be represented under two names, consider the mountains, if you will, as applicable to sacred places in the country and in the fields, and islands as temples of idols in the cities. But in such things as these, minutiæ of any sort do not seem to be required; so that, perhaps, in every instance, the small points of allegorical prophecies are not to be so anxiously suited to the event. It is sufficient if the sum and substance of the matter agree on both sides.
The demolition of shrines and temples was effected under the authority of the same most pious Theodosius, the standard-bearer of the Lamb. For Constantine the Great only shut up the temples of the gods; he did not destroy them, except at Constantinople and the adjoining places. Julian opened them again. But this emperor ordered them to be utterly demolished. The history is well known to every one, nor is there any necessity that I should add to what has been already related by the ecclesiastic writers on this subject. Perhaps, however, it will not be unacceptable to hear Zosimus, a Pagan historian, complaining of, or indignant at, this severe fate of his gods. |The sacristies of the gods, (says he,) were overthrown through all cities and countries, and therefore danger threatened the heads of those who thought them gods, or who looked up to heaven at all, and adored what. they saw there.| In truth, as the Lord, when he was about to conduct ancient Israel out of Egyptian bondage, is said to have exercised judgment on all the gods of the Egyptians, Exod. c. xii. v.12, Numb. c. xxxiii. v.4, so here, when he was about to deliver the Christian people from Roman tyranny, he exercised judgment on the gods of the Romans. But you will inquire when there was such a disturbance, and heaven and earth were blended, had those gods no Atlases who applied their shoulders to support the falling heavens, and oppose the standard-bearers of Christ thus overthrowing all things? Yes, they had; but they experienced a similar fate with their demons. |The kings of the earth,| says the Scripture, |and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bond and every free man,| that is, the emperors, Maximinian, Galerius, Maxentius, Maximin, with Martinian Cæsar, Licinius, Julian, (add also, if you please, the tyrants Eugenius and Arbogastes,) with all their companions in infidelity, of whatever order and degree, who endeavoured with force of arms to defend the religion of their forefathers, to support the cause of the gods, then falling into ruin, and to restore it when already fallen and desperate, were reduced at length to such straits, that |they hid themselves in caves and rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him who sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of his wrath is come, and who will be able to stand?|
This is a degrading image of persons flying and hiding themselves, and of those who are weary of life, from the desperate state of their affairs; to which you have a similar description in Luke, c. xxiii. v.30. of the slaughter of Jerusalem; also in Hosea, c. x. v.8. of the destruction of Samaria and her idols; but the whole is contained in Isaiah, c. xi. v.18.
Here, let the reader observe in the first place, that the key to unlock the whole vision, is contained in those words; for the matter treated of here, is of some splendid victory of the Lamb, by which he subdued and overthrew his enemies with a universal slaughter. Moreover, since they, whose destruction is described, fly from the Lamb as an enemy, and wish to hide themselves from his wrath, it may from hence clearly appear, that the slaughter, although it be pointed out by no synchronism, can by no means be applied to Christian kings, but to those who were estranged from Christ; and, therefore, ought not to be explained of slaughters by the Goths, and other barbarous nations upon the empire, after it had become Christian. But lastly, what the kings, nobles, and chief captains, and the rest of the Gentiles in the same situation with themselves, say in addition, that the great day of the wrath of the Lamb is come, and no one would be able to stand, are the words of men acknowledging the power of Christ, whom up to that time they had despised, in comparison with their gods; and believing in truth, that every attempt to resist the Christians would be fruitless. And this, in fact, they all thought; but Galerius, Maximin, and Licinius, even by open confession, however unwillingly, attribute the glory to God.
For Eusebius, with others, is our authority, that Galerius (with whom Christ begun in this judgment), being seized with a most filthy and horrible disease, in which his body, in consequence of worms spreading over it, putrified with an intolerable stench, was struck at last with a consciousness of the crimes which he had committed against the Church, and having confessed his guilt to God, abstained from persecution of the Christians, and by laws, and imperial edicts, hastened the building of their churches, and commanded the accustomed prayers to be offered up for him; and a short time after poured forth a soul guilty of such cruelty towards the Christians as had never been equalled.
Maximin, a most inhuman enemy of the Christians, relying on magic, on the divinations of idols, and the oracles of demons, in all which he trusted; nevertheless, being conquered by Licinius more than once, while he was yet defending the Christian faith with Constantine, his colleague, having cast away the ensigns of empire, fled and lurked for some time in the fields and villages in the habit of a slave; and at length, being shut up in Tarsus of Cilicia, and inflamed with fury, he butchered many priests and prophets of the gods, by whose oracles he had been excited to undertake the war, as fortune-tellers, impostors, and at length, betrayers of his safety; and then, giving glory to the God of the Christians, he is said to have promulgated a decree for their deliverance; but suddenly stricken by God, requiring punishment for so many crimes against the Christians, with a dreadful and mortal disease, and his whole flesh being by degrees eaten away, and consumed, and at length (as a just retribution for the punishment which he had meditated against the Christians), his eyes having started out, in consequence of the heat with which he was totally burnt up, he made his confession to the Lord, and breathed out his soul, acknowledging that he deserved to suffer those things on account of his madness and temerity against Christ .
Lastly, Licinius, the deserter of the Christians, whose party he had for some time espoused, with Constantine, and boasting proudly to his soldiers of the multitude of his gods in opposition to that one only God of Constantine, and him a novel and a foreign God (for so he called him), having been conquered in two great battles (in one of which, out of an army of 130,000 men, scarce 30,000 escaped), and being still unwilling to remain at rest, was at length condemned by Constantine, with his followers, by the laws of war, and given up to deserved punishment. But when they who were the authors of the war undertaken against God, were brought together with the tyrant to the place of punishment, as on the former occasion, they had insolently exulted in a hope placed in vain gods, so now they were brought to confess that they understood, in truth, how great and wonderful the God of Constantine was, and to acknowledge Him as the true and only God .