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By Enoch Pond, Professor at the Theological Seminary, Bangor Maine

Among my ministerial friends who have passed away, no one stood higher than the late Professor Moses Stuart of Andover. I loved and honored him while he lived, and venerate his memory now that he is gone. He was the father of biblical learning in this country. He did more to promote a knowledge of the original Scriptures, especially those of the old Testament, than any other individual.

On most of his exegetical writings I set a high value, and it is with pain that I feel constrained to differ from him in regard to any of them. But his learned, labored, exhaustive work on the Apocalypse I consider the least valuable of his Commentaries. The plan of this Commentary, borrowed mostly from the Germans, is founded on a false assumption; and this fact vitiates, confuses, and half spoils the whole.

Professor Stuart assumes that the Apocalypse was written about the year 68, just before the death of Nero, and two years previous to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.

In the Apocalypse, we have set before us, he says, three distinct catastrophes:

1. The fall of Jerusalem, in chapters 6-11.

2. The fall of Nero, and ultimately of Pagan Rome, in chapters 12-19.

3. The overthrow of Gog and Magog, after the close of the millennium.

There is no reference to Papal Rome anywhere. The prophetic symbols, from the beginning of the sixth chapter to the close of the eleventh, all relate to the destruction of Jerusalem. Those from the twelfth to the nineteenth, to the fall of Nero and of Pagan Rome. The principal reasons assigned for referring all the debatable parts of the Apocalypse to the former two of these catastrophes, are the following:

1. On any other supposition, the symbols of the Apocalypse would not have been understood by those to whom the book was addressed, nor even by John himself.

This consideration seems to have had great weight in the mind of Professor Stuart, and also of Professor Cowles, as both writers refer to it often, and in various connections. Let us then inquire, for a moment, how much it is likely that John understood of the Apocalypse at the time when he was receiving and writing it.

John knew what he saw in vision—the symbols, pictures, and images that were presented. He knew what he heard said and sung among the celestials. He knew enough, to record what he had seen and heard in plain intelligible language. But did he know to what particular events the symbols which he employed—the horsemen, the locusts, the beasts, the trumpets, the vials, etc., referred—what they were designed to represent, so that he could have written out a clear and full explication of them?

I doubt it. It is not at all likely that he had such an understanding as this of what he was writing. Nor was such knowledge on his part at all necessary to accomplish his object in preparing the work, or the object of the spirit in enabling him to prepare it.

This was, to comfort the afflicted persecuted people of God with the assurance, that all heaven was in sympathy with them in their trials, and that they were sure to end in victory and peace. Such was the immediate object of the Apocalypse; and this could be as well answered without a particular understanding of the significance of each of the symbols, as with it.

It is in this way that the book has been a light and a comfort to the Church in all succeeding ages. Christians have not known—in general they have not pretended to know, the particular significance of the symbols. Yet they have derived much instruction and comfort from the book.

Indeed, the knowledge of the ancient prophets, in predicting the Messiah and the way of salvation through Him, did not extend much farther than has been here represented; for we are told that they searched diligently ‘what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow’ (1 Pet. 1:11).

And, so far as John understood his writings, I suppose the Churches to which they were addressed understood them, and no further. They knew what John had written, what things he had described, and the meaning of his words. But did their knowledge extend much beyond this? I think not. Further knowledge was not necessary to their encouragement and comfort; and judging from the specimens which we have of the explications and comments of the early Christians, we cannot give them much credit for their knowledge of the Apocalypse.

They early began to allegorize it after the fashion of the times. They appealed to it in support of their millenarian views, which had begun to prevail before the Apocalypse was written. And of all the wild vagaries that have ever been written on this book, some of their interpretations were the wildest. Take, for example, the comments of Hippolytus on Rev. 12. "The woman is the Church; the sun which encompasses her means the Word of God; the moon under her feet indicates that her splendor is celestial.

The crown of twelve stars indicates the twelve apostles; the woes of parturiency show that the Church at all times is bringing forth the Word of God, which suffers persecution by the world. By the two eagles’ wings given to the woman, in order to aid her flight, we are to understand belief in Christ, who, on the cross, spread out. His followers.’ This will do as a specimen of patristic interpretation.

2. Professor Stuart, and others who follow him, endeavor to support their theory by certain representations of the Apocalypse, which,—though in the midst of symbols, and themselves manifestly symbolical,—it is insisted must be understood literally.

Thus, because the 144,000 sealed ones in Rev. 7. Are said to be taken from the twelve tribes of Israel, it is thought that they include none but believing Jews,—the same that took warning and fled from Jerusalem when the city was destroyed. But do not these interpreters know that the whole Christian Church is called in Scripture ‘the Israel of God,’ though a vast majority of its members are not, and, since the first century, never have been converted Jews? As well might it be inferred, since the names of ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’ are inscribed over the gates of the celestial city, chapter 21:12, that none but converted Jews can ever pass through them into heaven.

If the passage before us is to be understood literally, then, not only were 144,000 converted Jews sealed, but 12,000 were sealed from each of the twelve tribes. Now, does any one believe such a statement as this? Professor Stuart did not believe it.1

Clearly the passage is to be understood, not literally, but symbolically; and thus understood, it is easy of interpretation.

In Rev. 11:1,2, John says, that there was given him a reed, and he was commanded to rise and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. "But the court that is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles. And the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months.’ From this, it is confidently affirmed, that the temple at Jerusalem was standing when the passage was written.

The whole question resolves itself into this: Is this passage to be understood literally, or symbolically? If literally, then John, on the isle of Patmos, in the Aegean sea, was commanded to take a measuring-rod and hide away to the literal Jerusalem, and measure the temple, and the altar, and them that worship therein!

And now, I ask, Who believes this? Who can believe it? But this is not all. In measuring the temple and the altar, John was to leave out the court of the temple, and not measure it; for this was given to the Gentiles to be trodden under foot. According to this, interpreted literally, the Romans were not to destroy the temple itself, but only the court; whereas it is certain that they did destroy the entire temple, court and all, leaving not one stone upon another.

What then are we to say of the representation in Rev. 11:1,2? Is it to be understood literally or symbolically? Literally, it cannot be understood. So says Professor Stuart himself.2  But symbolically understood, the interpretation is easy. The temple and the holy city signify the Church of God, which was to be persecuted and trodden down of the wicked for a given time, but ultimately was to be delivered, and to triumph.

It is further said, that the two witnesses spoken of in this chapter, must have been slain in the literal Jerusalem, because their dead bodies are said to ‘lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.’ Upon this, I have only to ask, Are Sodom and Egypt to be understood literally? And if not, why is Jerusalem to be taken literally? And if the whole passage is to be understood symbolically, as it certainly must be, then it furnishes no more evidence that the literal Jerusalem was standing when John wrote the Apocalypse, than that the literal Sodom was.

3. Professor Stuart claims credit for his theory of the Apocalypse, on account of the absurd explications which have been given on the commonly received theory. ‘Men have regarded the Apocalypse as a prophetic syllabus of all civil and ecclesiastical history, from the author’s time to the end of the world.’

We admit that a great many absurd and foolish things have been said by commentators, though we doubt whether any have gone so far as Professor Stuart represents, making the Apocalypse a syllabus of all civil and ecclesiastical history. But have there not been as absurd explications by Germans and Roman Catholics, who in general adopt the theory of Professor Stuart? It would be easy to show as much as this, without looking beyond the pages of Stuart’s Commentary.

Professors Stuart and Cowles think to avoid such absurdities, by saying that most of the symbols which John employs have no particular significance. They are the mere dress and furniture of the poem. The seals and the trumpets mean nothing, except that Jerusalem was to be destroyed, as besieged cities commonly are, by the sword, the famine, and pestilence.

In a few instances, however, these men venture upon the interpretation of symbols; and, we doubt, whether explications more absurd were ever uttered. As before remarked, Professor Stuart makes the beast, whose head was wounded to death, and afterwards healed, to be Nero; because some of the old heathen soothsayers had a groundless prediction, that when Nero died he would be restored to life. And Professor Cowles interprets the seventh trumpet,—on the sounding of which ’great voices were heard in heaven saying.

The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ,’—as denoting the destruction of Jerusalem!! ‘The seventh angle’s trump involves this; nothing less, nothing more,’ p. 138. His only reason for this interpretation is, that his theory demands it. Jerusalem must be destroyed just at this point, and the seventh trumpet must denote it.

My objections to Professor Stuart’s scheme of interpretation—and that of Professor Cowles is much the same—are, in brief, as follows:—

1. He represents his first catastrophe—the destruction of Jerusalem—as being described in Rev. chapter 11; whereas, in truth, there is no catastrophe there. Let any reader look over the chapter, and see if he can find it. There is first the measuring of the mystical temple, signifying the Church, and a leaving out of the court, which is given to the Gentiles, who are to tread down the holy city—another symbol of God’s living Church—forty and two months. Then follows the testimony of the witnesses in sack-cloth, their death, and their resurrection.

This resurrection probably took place at the time of the reformation from Popery, when there were mighty changes in the Roman earth—all prefigured by an earthquake, and the fall of the tenth part of the city—the Popish hierarchy. That the city here spoken of, a tenth part of which fell, cannot be the literal Jerusalem, is evident from the fact, that Jerusalem was totally destroyed by the Romans shortly after the earthquake of the Reformation. The seventh trumpet sounds, and the millennial period is announced. Such is a brief analysis of this chapter; and where in it are we to look for any such great catastrophe as the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans? I cannot find it; nor do I believe any sober interpreter can.

2. But if there be such a catastrophe here as Professor Stuart represents, it ought to be called the second, and not the first. The second catastrophe, pertaining to Nero, is in the 19th chapter. But Nero was slain at least two years before Jerusalem was destroyed,—in which time there reigned no less than four emperors. Nero is supposed to have died in the year 68; but Jerusalem was destroyed, under Vespasian, in the year 70. Why then, we ask, was the first catastrophe made the second, and the second the first? Why were not these events predicted, if predicted at all, in the order of time?

3. The symbols of destruction in the Revelation, which Professor Stuart refers to Jerusalem, are said by the writer to apply to the whole earth—that is, the Roman earth. Thus, power was given to him that sat on the red horse to take peace from the earth.

And power was given unto him on the pale horse ‘over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with the sword, and with hunger, and with the beasts of the earth’ (chap. 6:4,8). And when the first trumpet sounded, there followed hail and fire, mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth (chap. 8:7). In Asia Minor, in he last half of the first century, the term earth could never have been understood as referring to the little and remote province of Judea. It must have meant the Roman empire.

4. Those who were smitten by the blast of the sixth trumpet,—some of whom were slain, and some spared,—could not have been Jews; since they are expressly said to have been idolaters. ‘The rest of the men that were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which can neither hear, nor see, nor walk’ chap. 9:20). How is it possible to apply this passage to the Jews, who were not idolaters?’

5. In the same chapter (9.), the number of horsemen drawn together to the battle, and drawn from the East—the region of the Euphrates—is two hundred thousand thousand. Was any such army, or any thing like it, or any army at all, drawn from the region other Euphrates to fight against Jerusalem at the time of its overthrow. Let those who have read the history decide.

6. The woman described in chapter 12., Professors Stuart and Cowles both take to be the virgin Mary, giving birth to the Saviour of the world, and then fleeing to her hiding-place in Egypt; thus looking backward a period of seventy years, and not forward, as a prophet should do, into the future. And why should this little scrap of history—if it be history—be thrown in here, in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem?

7. This scheme of interpretation makes a long stride from the fall of Nero in the first century, or of Pagan Rome in the time of Constantine, to the incoming of the millennium. Of all the intervening space,—so full of incident and of interest to the Church of God,—the writer of the Apocalypse is thought to take not the slightest notice. On any theory of interpretation, would not this be regarded as a strange fact, an a strong objection?

8. But my principal objection to Professor Stuart’s interpretation of the Apocalypse is, that the has fixed upon a wrong time for the writing of the book, and this vitiates an nullifies all his reasonings on the subject. We have shown, we think conclusively, that this book was written, not during the persecution under Nero, but thirty years later, in the time of Domitian—long after Nero was dead and Jerusalem destroyed. And this changes the whole aspect and import of the book. Instead of being filled up with symbols and predictions in regard to these two events, there is not the slightest reference to either of them, as I have before remarked, in all that the Apostle has written.

[1] See Commentary, vol. II, p. 173.  [back]

[2] Vol. II, p. 213.  [back]