THE FIFTH SEAL.
Thus in a series of consecutive homogeneous figurations, figurations each one of a symbolic horse and horseman, passing forth, as I suppose, over the Roman landscape,1 and repeated in this homogeneous form until the mind of the Evangelist must have become familiarized with them. Until the obvious presumptive solution of the three last, on the same principle of Roman reference, must have illustrated and confirmed in his mind that which we have expounded as the most simple and natural interpretation of the first, in this series, I say, the imminent secular fortunes of the great military empire of Rome had been prefigured to St. John, as time would in its lapse unfold them.
First, and under the rule of a new line of emperors, an era of remarkable and protracted prosperity and triumph; next, under the abuse of the power of the sword, a commencing era of as remarkable civil warfare and bloodshed; then, on a scale suddenly enlarged, an era of aggravated suffering from the iniquitous administration and fiscal oppressions of them to whom rightfully appertained the balances of equity, with a notice of the last vain reclamation’s of law and justice against them, and the marked and final triumph of official corruption; lastly, an era characterized by the letting loose on the devoted empire of the judgments of sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts; the evils of the two preceding Seals, themselves still in force, having in fact prepared the way for these four sore judgments of God: under which, at length, the very vitality of the empire seemed threatened, and its pale and livid hue indicative of approaching dissolution.
But what, meanwhile, of the Christian church and cause? About the time of the revelation being communicated to St. John in Patmos, Christ’s new and heaven-born religion, as also the church gathered out of the world professing it, had so far spread throughout the empire, and so widely and prominently exhibited its extraordinary pretensions and effects, as necessarily to attract public observation: and that not of the lower orders only; but of the great and the learned also, of philosophers, statesmen, provincial governors, emperors.
Under such circumstances, and long spared as it appeared the empire would be, through all the subsequent varying vicissitudes of the first four Seals, would it profit, the Evangelist might think, by this prolongation of the day of its visitation: and both rulers and people direct their enquiries into the evidences that Christianity had to show of heavenly origin; and, recognizing them, believe and embrace it? That such would not have been the case during the period of the Seals thus far opened, he might almost have inferred from the figuring’s of the secular fortunes of the empire shown under them.
For, had Christianity been in reality and in the spirit embraced by it, the red, the black, and the pale would scarcely have been, one after the other, the distinctive phases of the Roman state. Christianity would have been to it as the panacea of the evils of its social, as well as of its moral system. Under its influence they that bore the sword would have borne it as God’s ministers; a terror to evil doers, and the praise of them that did well: and they, again, to whom the balances appertained, would have administered with the balance of justice. "Truth would have sprung out of the earth, and righteousness looked down from heaven."
And then, instead of the four sore judgments of God, the land, it might be supposed, would have yielded its increase; and peace and plenteousness flourished within it. Thus much, I say, as it seems to me, St. John might have inferred as to the non-reception of Christ’s holy religion during this period, from the very prefigurations of the second, third, and fourth Seals themselves.
But now, on the fifth Seal’s opening direct in formation was to be given him on the subject. For the vision, while primarily depicting a crisis of the church during a new and memorable era which was to follow after that of the fourth Seal, retrospectively intimated also its condition and treatment in the Roman empire, during the period of all the four Seals preceding.
On this fifth symbolic vision we are now to enter. And in doing so let me first and briefly call attention to the new and different scenery now brought prominently into view, as connected with it. Hitherto, as before observed, the figurations presented to the apostle may be most probably supposed to have past over the landscape of the Roman world, to which they more immediately related.
But when the fifth Seal was opened, another and nearer part of that significant scenery was called into use, to aid in the development of the subject prefigured. The attention of the observer was directed to something passing in the altar court of the apocalyptic temple; and this locality so intimately associated with the new vision, as to constitute in fact an integral and essential part of it.
Now as, under the Jewish ritual, it was the altar-court of the literal temple that was the scene of what was visible and public in the divine worship, and there were seen the ministrations at the altar, the offerings peculiar, votive, and eucharistic, the varied lustrations, the presentments of incense by the people worshipping, and their solemn prayer and psalmody, led by the priests and Levites ministering, so in this Apocalyptic temple it might even a priori have been expected that the altar court, and what passed in it, would furnish the local scene and indication of whatever had to be prefigured, as characteristic and important, respecting the visible worship, from time to time, of Christ’s true and faithful people.
And just such will prove the fact. We shall find associated thereafter with the local scene spoken of, the figurations of all such matters as chiefly concerned church-worship: whether that of the church’s thanksgivings for signal deliverance’s and mercies; that of the saints’ presentment to the High Priest of their profession, when such presentment of it was distinctive, of the incense of prayer and praise; or that of their consistent ministrations, when others might not be faithful in there ministering, at the great altar: 2
I say at the great brazen altar of sacrifice ; that standing memorial, in the emblematic temple, of Christ’s peculiar offering: as constituting, to the end of time, the very center and essence of all true Christian worship. Thus in the present case, as the scene depicted was the altar-court and the voice heard, a voice thence issuing, they might be supposed to indicate, here as elsewhere, something notable and characteristic of the times, in respect of the Church’s visible worshipping. What then, we ask, was the thing now signified respecting it? What the foreshown characteristic of the worship publicly rendered by Christians to their Lord, in the next notable era, after that of the fourth Seal? This is the first point for consideration.
1. "And when he opened the fifth Seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long 0 Master holy and true, dost thou not avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? "
Thus the scene now depicted in the altar-court was one not of living worshippers, but dead; the voice heard one, not of psalmody or praise, but of suffering. It issued from beneath the altar; and came, as the sacred description tells us, from" the souls of them that had been slain for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus:" Shadowy human forms appearing there, we may suppose,3 since white robes are afterwards said to have been given them: perhaps like those elohim seen ascending out of the earth in olden time by king Saul. 4
There was prefigured, evidently, some notable era of persecution against the church, from " them that dwelt on the earth , . e. the Roman rulers and people; they having been raised up, apparently, in strength to effect it, from the destroying judgments of the Seal preceding: a persecution of virulence such that other visible worship and witnessing for the faith would be now suppressed; and this would alone remain to Christians, to offer themselves in -sacrifice, in the cause, as well as after the example, of their dying Master; or, as St. Paul expresses it, to pour out their souls in libation, at the foot of his altar. 5
And of this the historical fulfillment is most striking. Little as was the probability of such an event, during the desolating judgments of the earlier half of the fourth Seal, the Roman empire was raised up from its state of imminent dissolution.
"Oppressed and almost destroyed" as it had been, to use Gibbon’s language, "under the deplorable reigns of Valerian and Gallienus, it was saved by a series of great princes, Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian, and his colleagues: who, within a period of about thirty years, triumphed over the foreign and domestic enemies of the state, and deserved the title of restorers of the Roman world."
It is observable, indeed, that although raised up in its integrity, (saving indeed that Dacia, the acquisition of Trajan, was abandoned by Aurelian to the Goths,) it was not so, practically speaking, 6 in its unity,a quadripartite division under two senior emperors, the Augusti, and two juniors, the Caesars, having been instituted by Diocletian (so as already observed by me under the fourth Seal,) as necessary to provide against the difficulties and dangers that now on every side claimed the imperial attention. So that the dissolution of the horse, the symbol previously of the undivided empire, had, in fact, taken place. The empire under its old constitution was no more. "Like Augustus, Diocletian may be considered as the founder of a new empire. 7
Still the restoration was effective. The empire revived in strength. But it only revived to exhibit, in signal display, the spirit of enmity to Christianity that animated it. During the progress of its restoration, indeed, the Christian churches enjoyed toleration and rest. But no sooner had the restoration been completed, in fact in the very same year that that auspicious consummation was celebrated by Diocletian in his triumph at Rome, (the last triumph that Rome ever saw,) in that same year, A. D. 303, the persecution that we speak of began.
It was early that year, in the royal palace of Nicomedia , that secret and ominous councils began to be held between Diocletian himself, and Galerius, the eastern Caesar previously nominated by him. Maximian, the other Augustus, though absent, concurred in them. The destruction of Christianity was the subject. "Perhaps," says Gibbon, it was "represented to Diocletian that the glorious work of the deliverance of the empire was left imperfect so long as an independent people,"( i.e. the Christians) "were permitted to subsist and multiply in it."8 So then the blow was struck.
On the 23rd of February the mission of an armed force to destroy the great church of Nicomedia, and burn the sacred books in it, was the signal for commencing persecution; a persecution the longest, the most universal, and the fiercest, that ever yet raged against the Christians. History, alike secular and ecclesiastical, agrees in thus representing it: and by a remarkable coincidence, and as if on purpose to call attention to the fulfillment in this persecution of the fifth Seal’s prefigurative vision, a chronological era, dating from Diocletian’s accession, and, until the introduction of the Christian era in the sixth century, general use among Christian writers, I say this era though instituted for other and astronomical purposes, has received its title from it, 9 and is called the Era of martyrs.
Churches to be demolished, the Holy Scriptures burnt, church property confiscated, the holders of religious assemblies put to death, and Christians generally put out of the protection of the law, such were the heads of first edict. Then followed others, imposing penalties of imprisonment, tortures, and death, first against the Christian bishops, presbyters, and other ecclesiastical then against all Christians, if obstinate in their faith.
In this series of cruel edicts, Diocletian declared "his intention of abolishing the Christian name:" The of the populace readily, for the most part, second the declared intention of the emperor. And thus, with the partial exception of the western provinces, and the rule of the Caesar Constantius Chlorus, (I say part’ for Spain and Britain too furnished many victims,)10
Christian blood was shed throughout the extent of the Roman world. And long before the nine or ten years of the persecution expired, such had been its effect that the three other emperors, Diocletian, Maximian, and Galerius, united to raise pillars commemorative of their success; on which pillars inscriptions, still extant, recorded their vain boast having extirpated Christianity.
For church-service the Christians now met in eaves ‘and catacombs. Their only visible public witnessing for Christ was by martyrdom.
2. "How long, 0 Lord, dost thou not avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? In the words, "How long," it was further implied to the Evangelist, as I before observed, that although this persecution was the first and only one noted in the prefigurative visions, thus far exhibited, yet it would not be then a new thing for Christian blood to be shed by them that dwelt on the Roman earth, including, as the words signified, both rulers and people; but only a continuance or repetition of the treatment long previously experienced by them.
To verify this is my next object. And in doing so I must crave permission from the reader not to hurry over the investigation. A sketch of the persecutions of Christianity in the Roman empire is almost necessary to our entering into the feelings expressed in the words, " How long," by the souls under the alter. And, after dwelling so much at length on the secular fortunes of the Roman empire throughout the preceding centuries, it seems scarce allowable not to pause awhile on the cotemporaneous and parallel history, as connected with it, of the Church of Christ.
Do we wonder that this should be, as we find it, a history, in no little measure, of resistance, persecution, and suffering? The wonder will cease with us when the glorious fact is remembered that Christianity was in its very essence a war of aggression on error, idolatry, superstition, and vice, in all their forms and in all their workings: an aggression unprecedented in the worlds history; and begun at a time when, with growth of ages, they had associated themselves with all the political institutions, as well as all the lesser individualities of domestic and social life: and this in an empire the mightiest the world ever saw.
During the supremacy of the three preceding empires, the Persian, Babylonian, and Grecian, it was otherwise. Then it was ordered in God’s Providence that religious truth should be in retirement: on the principle of seclusion, not publicity and with self-preservation as its object, not aggressive war and victory. Hence it was shut up within’ the narrow limits of Judea, as the religion of one particular nation, not of mankind or the world; and by all its connected ceremonies, laws, and institutions, prohibited almost from extending itself.
The times of ignorance in the world at large God then winked at. But on the introduction of Christianity the case was directly the reverse. "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature," –such was the charge to his apostles by Him who had come as the SAVIOUR into this lost world: and in it was declared their commission to go forth and make war, though not with carnal weapons, on evil and error in its every form; "casting down all imaginations, and every high thought that exalted itself against the knowledge of God."
Could it be expected that man’s corruption would not rise against the religion that disturbed it? Or that the strong man armed, the Spirit of evil, the Prince of the darkness of this world, when thus assailed in his very citadel, would fail of acting out the bitterness of his enmity?
It was from the populace that the persecution of Christian teachers and people began in the Roman empire. This was to be expected. The war was made, not, like other wars, on men in the associated mass in the first instance, the political body, the state, the empire, but over men one by one individually; and, in every case, the conquest sought was that not of the mere profession, that of the heart. It was sought there; and, in the case of many, it was won there.
For in spite of its self-denying lessons, and in spite of its outward cross of persecution also, there attended the Christian faith those high credentials of its truth and divinity, and that power and sweetness in its doctrine to convince the reason, calm the troubled conscience, comfort the sorrowing heart, and satisfy its irresistible longings after the knowledge of God and after immortality, (longing that amidst the speculations and vain boastings of philosophy had been hitherto altogether unsatisfied,) which, with the sincere’ overcame every obstacle; and led them to join in willing union with that new and despised body of men called Christians, after the name of their crucified Master, CHRIST JESUS.
In every such case new tastes and principles, and by consequence new habits of life, new associations, and the relinquishment of the old followed. Thus the family first felt it. There consequently began the first outcry and opposition. The members of a house were divided, three against two, and two against three. Then it was felt in each little social circle; then, as the numbers increased of converts to Christianity, in the towns and districts surrounding.
So from a thousand centers the outcry rose, and waxed louder and louder; "These are they which turn the world upside down. "The Prince of this world had his ready instruments to fan the gathering odium; the Jews scattered over the Roman world, indignant at the thought of the truth and salvation of God being offered to Gentiles; the Magicians who found their false miracles exposed and confounded by true ones; the Pagan Priests and trades that found their craft threatened; and, at length the Philosophers too, indignant at their philosophy being exposed as foolishness.
Superstition, with its dark and unholy terrors, added to the feeling a against Christians, and gave it a deeper bigotry. As they had no idol-statues, it vilified them as atheists. The disasters of the natural world, whensoever occurring, floods, earthquakes, dearth, pestilence, and those of war too, it charged on them. It was the anger of the gods against the Christians.
From the people the outcry against Christianity rose up to the Governors. At first, Gallio, they treated it with indifference. Then other results followed. The first imperial persecution of Christians that by Nero, was one of singular character and origin It was not an act of state jealousy against them. They had not as yet sufficient power or eminence to excite his jealousy. Nor was it a persecution ordered against them for their peculiar doctrines. Of these, probably, he knew nothing. But it was a taking advantage of the odium prevalent against the Christian body in Rome, to fix on them the guilt of a then recent incendiary firing of the city: the excessive hatred they labored under, rendering them the fittest class on whom to avert from himself, the real criminal, that odious charge.
Under Domitian, the second imperial persecutor, the case was different. The numbers had now so increased in the empire. that his jealousy, being awakened by informers against sundry classes as plotting treason, (crimen majestatis,)) naturally directed itself against Christians among others. Besides the usual charge of atheism, it was said that this aspiring body was seeking a kingdom.
So the jealous emperor slew, in the person of his own cousin Clemens, the Christian of noblest blood and rank; banished the only surviving apostle of the Christian faith to Patmos; and summoned the nearest surviving relatives of Him the Christians called their King.
But he found the last-mentioned poor men; heard that it was a kingdom not of this world; and dismissed them with contempt. Thus far St. John himself had beheld the progress of persecution. Soon after, on Nerva’s accession, Christians, among other sufferers from Domitian’s tyranny, were set free. Against Christians, as Christians, no direct law as yet existed. 11
About this time however, or soon after, the effect on the public habits and feelings had become so striking, and constituted a social phenomenon so entirely new, and on so vast a scale, as necessarily to arouse both the curiosity and the anxiety of the ruling powers. The governor of Bithynia, the younger Pliny, wrote to the emperor Trajan of the temples being in disrepute, and almost deserted in his province, from the influence of the body of men called Christians: and, at the same time, of the popular fury being such against them, as to charge them with every crime, 12 and violently to call for their punishment; though, on examination, their morals seemed to him to be singularly virtuous and innocent.
This was an era in the history of the persecution of the Christian Church. In Trajan’s rescript, the law was first declared respecting them. It had long previously been recognized, Cicero tells us, as a principle in the Roman legislation, that no gods were to be worshipped "nisi publice adsciti" i.e. unless admitted and recognized in the public law. On this Maecenas had strongly counseled Augustus to insist, as a preservative principle to his empire. And upon this Trajan seems now to have formed his rescript. It was true that in the subsequent admission of the Egyptian gods and religion into Rome, a principle of tolerance had been acted on inconsistent with the former law; and the Jews’ religion too had become a religion recognized in the empire, and under legal protection, a "religio licita."
But the peculiarity of Christianity that I before alluded to seemed to demand other treatment. Both the Egyptian religion, and that of the Jews, were peculiarly national, religions for the people of those two nations distinctively; and not proselytizing, not aggressive, at least to any marked or dangerous extent. But in the phenomenon now before him he beheld a religion, as before said, essentially proselytizing, essentially aggressive on the paganism established in the empire; and in its pretensions challenging and marching on to be universal.
His inquiries must have represented the Christians as a numerous and rapidly increasing body of men in the empire, separated in spirit and in habits from the common mass of Roman citizens: a body neither Roman nor barbarian, but sort of "genus tertium," as Tertullian tells us the Christians were reproachfully called: 13 being indeed in the empire, but not of the empire; and constituting an impenum in imperio, a civitas in civitate; just according to that Apocalyptic figure, which depicted them as a holy city, locally associated with the great city of this world, but not blending with it.
The mysteriousness of their religious faith made them of course the more objects of suspicion; no visible temple, altars, images, or sacrifices appertaining to it, so as to other religions: and yet more, the singular and unintelligible closeness of their union; and their obstinacy, which was such as it Was found no torture nor death itself could triumph over. 14
In Trajan’s rescript, the law was thus far mildly declared, that there should be no inquisition for Christians by the public officers; but that, when brought in regular process of law before the governor, and tried by the test of sacrificing to the gods, the recusants should suffer punishment. The rescript, I say, may have been thus far mercifully intended, as a protection of innocent Christians against the violent seeking out and tearing them from their homes by the popular fury.
Yet as it constituted Christianity in itself a religio illicita, a faith criminal to adhere to, it furnished a ready plea under which Christians might be thenceforward accused and punished, whensoever the ruler was unjust, or the populace enraged, and the governor (like Festus) willing to do them a pleasure. So in many parts it even now operated. Souls of martyrs were gathered from one place and another under the altar. Ignatius, the venerable bishop of Antioch, headed them. In the full triumph of faith he Journeyed to Rome, his appointed place.
"Wherefore," said he, "have I given myself up unto death, to fire, to the sword, to wild beasts? The nearer I am to the sword, the nearer to God. When I am among the wild beasts I am with God. In the name of Jesus Christ I undergo all, to suffer together with him." Such is reported to us as his language, in a letter written on the journey to the Church at Smyrna.15 A little after writing it, his journey was accomplished: and in the great amphitheater at Rome, which still remains in its colossal grandeur, the martyr’s memorial, amidst the brutal shouts of assembled myriads, he was thrown to the lions.
Now began the apologies of Christians. Quadratuss and Aristides were the first to appeal in behalf of the Christian body to Trajan’s successor Hadrian; then afterwards, Justin Martyr to Antoninus Pius. And both Hadrian, in the spirit of equity, issued his rescript against punishing Christians for any thing but political crimes; and the first Antonine yet more decidedly, though not uniformly with success, protected them against violence. But with the second Antonine the face of things was changed. His various proconsuls in various places; if not himself16 treated Christianity as a direct crime against the state; enjoining inquisition against Christians, the application of torture, if they refused sacrificing, and, if still, obstinate, death.
The wild beasts, the cross, the stake, these were the cruel forms of death that met the faithful. Many were now gathered under the altar: among others the souls of Polycarp, of Justin Martyr, and of the faithful confessors of the church at Lyons. Then the white horse passed from view.
As the period of the red horse succeeded, and when, amidst the civil commotions ensuing, they that shed Christian blood had it given them in a measure to drink blood, the Church enjoyed a temporary respite; which lasted through the reign of Commodus, and to the beginning of that of Septimius Severus. But, shortly after, a law of the last-named. emperor, forbidding conversions to Christianity under heavy penalties, while it indicated the increasing progress of that divine religion in the empire, did, also, as Christianity could not but be aggressive and proselyte, revive persecution against it. The brunt of the persecution fell on the churches of Africa and Egypt.
And Tertullian, the Carthaginian presbyter, rose up as their apologist. He tells, in his Apology, of the insults and injuries that the Christians suffered under. " How often," says he, addressing the Governors in Proconsular Africa, "do ye use violence against the Christians; sometimes at the instigation of private malice, sometimes according to the forms of law! How often also do the common people attack us in their rage with stones and flames! "But, added he, "Truth wonders not at her own condition. She knows that she is a sojourner upon earth; that she must find enemies among strangers; that her, her home, her hopes, her dignities, are placed in heaven."
And then again: Call us, if ye will, by names of reproach, sarmenticii, semaxii; names derived from the stake to which we are bound, and the faggots with which we are surrounded when burnt to death! These are but our ornaments of victory, our robe of state, our triumphal chariot."
Under the third Seal, and when again, in God’s righteous retribution, the people that had so long instigated the malice and the rapacity of unjust provincial governors against Christians, had their lot darkened by the letting of that very rapacity and injustice on themselves, at that time that self-same voice in the imperial government that called, though all ineffectually, for equity in the general administration, called, but still as ineffectually, for equity specially towards Christians.
Alexander Severus confessed his admiration of Christian morality, and of Him too who had been its first and divine teacher. On a particular occasion he even recognized the Christians as a lawful corporation, 17 and protected them at Rome against their enemies.
But it was a protection partial only and transient. Martyrs were still slain. The name of Hippolytus, bishop of Porto, stands eminent among them. Moreover, the former laws against Christians remained unrepealed. 18 And, after his death, his successor Maximin renewed the imperial persecution against them; the rather as against a body which Alexander had favored. His edict was directed specially against the bishops and leaders of the Church. But in its effects it went further. It animated the heathen priests, magistrates, and multitude against Christians of every rank and order. Smite the shepherds, and the sheep shall be scattered."
The actual martyrdoms unto death had not indeed thus far been very many; I. e. as compared with the multitude of the Christian body. So Origen declared near the middle of the third century. There had been enough to show man’s bitter enmity against the truth, enough to exhibit the glorious sustaining power of Christian faith. If not more, it was His doing who could shut the lions’ mouths. Moreover, if the martyrs slain were not so many, the confessors who suffered in other ways for the faith were innumerable.
But while Origen made this statement respecting the past, he added, in a remarkable passage respecting the future, that the tranquility then prevailing was not to be expected to continue: that the irresistible progress of Christianity, and the impression generally prevalent as to the downfall of the established religion necessarily consequent thereon, and together with it untold disasters to the empire, that this would soon again revive the flames of persecution ; and that it would then rage with an intensity, probably, greater than ever:-concluding thus; "But, if God will, let it come: Christ has overcome the world." 19
Such was at that time the anticipation of Origen; and very soon it had its fulfillment. The period of the fourth Seal succeeded to that of . the third. It was seen by the emperor Decius that if the heathen state-religion were to be preserved," the Christian must be crushed; that the two could not long consist to ether. Thereupon he made his decision.
He determined on crushing Christianity. Like those of certain preceding emperors, his edicts commanded inquisition of Christians, torture, death. Then was the consternation great. The bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius, expressly records it. For the Church had now lost much of its first love. There were some apostasies; there were many faithless: the libellatici and the acta facientes: professors who at the same time dared not confess, yet dared not apostatize; and bribed the magistrates with money, to spare them the conflict. But now Death on the pale horse, having received his commission, had entered the empire.
The sword of the Goths, one of his appointed instrumental agencies, struck down the persecuting emperor. His successor Valerian, presently after, animated by’ the same spirit, renewed the persecution. It was against the bishops and presbyters, who led on the Christians to the conflict, and the Christians’ assemblies, which supplied the means of grace that strengthened them to endure it, that the imperial edicts were now chiefly leveled.
Then it was that the bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, confessed among others, and was added to the glorious army of martyrs. But God again interposed. As Decius by the Gothic sword, so Valerian had his reign cut short by the Persian. And Gallienus, his son and successor, trembling under God’s sore judgments, though still as before unconverted, sensual, hard-hearted, issued for the first time (A. D. 261) an edict of toleration to Christianity. Their churches and burial-grounds were now restored to Christians; their worship permitted. Though the popular outbreaks against the disciples were by no means altogether discontinued, Christianity was legalized.
Such in brief, were the persecutions of Christians in the Roman empire prior to that by Diocletian. During the progress of what has been called by some the gradual restoration of the empire, commencing soon after Gallienus’ edict of toleration, (for the emperor Claudius, the first of the restorers, succeeded him in the year 268,) the toleration continued. Christian churches were now built; Christian worship might be held in public.
To use the Apocalyptic figure, the symbolic altar court of the Christian temple, with its ritual of sacred worship, was now opened to general view. But no sooner was the restoration completed than an era began, as we have seen, under the new Seal, which was emphatically, and beyond any other, the era of martyrs. Persecution broke out afresh after its slumbering, like a giant refreshed with sleep. It combined in itself the bitterness of all the former persecutions: confiscation, imprisonment, torture, death; a special vengeance against churches and church assemblies, bishops and’ presbyters; with the new feature moreover super-added of war against the holy Scriptures; that guide and source of strength to the suffering church, by the destruction of which, it was now rightly judged, Christianity might best be destroyed. "When he had opened the fifth Seal, I saw the souls of them that were slain for the word of God,20 and for the testimony which they held." Some there were, yea many, faithless under the terrors of the persecution; many traditores, that betrayed their trust, gave up the Holy Scriptures, and helped to prompt the persecutors’ boast of having extirpated Christianity. But the faithful, the faithful even unto death, were many also.
The Bible was preserved: (indeed a special provision had been previously made in God’s providence for its preservation:)21and the Church continued to witness for the word of God, and the gospel of Jesus. But let us advert to what remains of the vision.
3. " How long, 0 Lord, holy and true, dost thou not avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? "
During the progress of these persecutions the feeling with the martyrs themselves, (at least the earlier martyrs,) that for the most part overpowered all other feelings, was that of joy and gratitude at being permitted the privilege of partaking in Christ’s sufferings, and after his example suffering themselves, like burnt-offerings, (not peculiar indeed, but of self devotion,) on the altar of God.
Witness the recorded language of Ignatius and of Polycarp, on occasion of their martyrdoms; language alike beautiful, and most illustrative of the Apocalyptic imagery under which their martyr-deaths were here depicted. 22 Afterwards however, as the clause in the vision just quoted may perhaps suggest to the reader, there were mingled at times with this joyous gratitude other thoughts and feelings.
They knew that God would not leave them unavenged; and spoke to each other, and to their persecutors, of a coming vengeance. So for example, in the persecution last before Diocletian’s, the African martyr Marianus." As if filled," we read, "with the prophetic spirit, he warned his persecutors, and animated his brethren, by proclaiming the approaching avenging of his blood."
But it is in fact the seeming cry of the martyred saints, the voice of their blood in the ears of those surviving Christians of the true Apostolic line and character whom I suppose St. John here as elsewhere to have impersonated, that the analogy of what is said in Scripture of Abel’s blood crying from the ground23 points out as the precise meaning of the symbolic language of the clause. And by these, the attendant and surviving ministers of the Christian body, the cry of the blood of their martyred brethren, was construed as in harmony with their own feelings; and as calling for vengeance, speedy and destroying vengeance, on the murderers. To which vengeance the Church of the third century did for the most part, like Marianus, expect and look for. Mark, for example, the language of Tertullian and of Cyprian: 24 language in truth too maledictory;25 and hardly in unison with the spirit of Stephen, 26 or of Polycarp. 27
But behold, in contravention of such expectations, it was delayed through one, through two centuries, and more. From Year to year, from reign to reign. Christian blood was again and again shed by their enemies, especially in this last and most terrible persecution by Diocletian. Then the voice seemed to them to wax louder and louder: and, with a tone of murmuring and impatience mixed in it, as well as of suffering, yea, and with almost an impeachment of God’s attributes of holiness and truth, for having so long spared the guilty, and left his saints to suffer, to cry, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? In the catacombs at Rome, whither the persecuted Christians fled for concealment in that day of trouble, memorials still exist, the most impressive and affecting, both of the martyrs then slain, and of their blood crying as it were from beneath the ground against them that shed it. I allude to monumental tablets long extant there, with inscriptions rudely sculptured to their memory: and vases of small size often seen beside them, where into had been poured, as would seem, what the Christian bystanders could collect of life’s ebbing flood at the scene of martyrdom;28 inscribed with the single but significant word, Sanquis, "Blood!" Did there not seem to them to be, as it were, a voice, a cry, in that simple memorial word against their murderers?
Now methinks, when such thoughts arose, it should have been considered by the early Christians, much more than was usually the case, that towards nations, even as towards individuals, the divine long-suffering is an attribute which must needs magnify itself, as well as the divine justice and holiness. Long hid been Jerusalem’s experience of this; and even the heathen Nineveh felt it also.
If, after the time when Christianity and the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus had been fully brought before the consideration of the Roman people, a time which I have dated as about coincident with that of the giving of the Apocalypse, or close of the first century, if, I say, after this, a period of prolonged prosperity and peace, such as of the white horse, was appointed to the empire, and with it the most favorable opportunity for the calm consideration of the evidences and claims of the holy religion offered them, what was there in this but what accorded with the usual action of God’s Providence towards men individually; yea, and which they themselves had each one probably experienced?
Or, again, what was there but in accord with his usual forbearance, if, when this period of the white horse bad passed unimproved, it was ordered that those of the red, the black and the pale that succeeded, should be periods of attempered suffering and punishment, just such as might ‘best force the sufferers to consider the heavenly message; of punishment, but not more; not of destruction? As to his own persecuted people, the Christians, who in that vast empire were as sheep in the midst of wolves, had He not so, overruled the times of their bitterest persecutions, (the persecution of Decian, for example, and the persecutions by Valerian and Diocletian,) as that they should fall on the Church when confessedly corrupted, and needing something to stay the increasing corruption? Had He not moreover in some measure blessed those persecutions, to their purification and recovery?
If so, then, instead of there being any failure in all this of his faithfulness and truth, it was but the very acting out and expression of those attributes towards them. And so indeed some, like David of old, felt it. "I know, 0 Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou of very Faithfulness hast afflicted me."
4. But mark the progress of the vision. And white robes were given into every one of them: and it was said unto them that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also, and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled." Such was the voice heard by St. John, still of course in his representative character: defining the time of the judgment which those martyrs seemed to call for, as thus far approximate, that there would only intervene before it the period of the rise and slaughter of another and distinct body of martyrs, similarly witnessing for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
I say another and distinct body: for the very singular symbolization, coincidentally, of the presentation of white robes to all and each of those that had appeared in this vision under the altar, constituted a marked sign of separation between its martyrs, and those that were to come; of which sign more under the Head following.
For the present let us confine our inquiry to the chronological intimation here given as to the time of the desired consummation; and see how the giving of it was fulfilled in the case of those whom at this point in the drama John represented.
It is assuredly very striking and instructing ‘to observe with what earnestness of interest the fathers of the early, Church, throughout the whole era of Pagan persecution referred to, as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, for example, Tertullian and Hippolytus, searched into the inspired predictions handed down to them. These were to them no unmeaning, no profitless writings.
However they may have been in doubt with regard to some particulars of the future, there was a certain great outline that they found clear in divine prophecy: and both in this, and in the views that it opened to them throughout, of God’s care and kindness to his Church, they found an admirable stay to their faith, together with counsel, encouragement, comfort.
So that there was fulfilled to them, even thus early, what was written, "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear, the words of this prophecy". It was specially the prefigurative visions in Daniel and the Apocalypse, of the quadripartite symbolic Image and four symbolic wild Beasts, and the predictions in St. Paul and St. John respecting the Man of Sin and the Antichrist, that fixed their attention.
And what their inferences, as to the things then present, and the things future? First, they judged with one consent that Daniel’s fourth wild Beast symbolized the Roman empire; and also that the little horn of this wild Beast, or its equivalent the last head of the Apocalyptic Beast, symbolized one and the same antichristian power as St. Paul’s Man of Sin, and St. John’s Antichrist.
Further they judged that the Roman empire, in its then existing state, was the let or hindrance meant by St. Paul, standing in the way of Antichrist’s manifestation; and that its removal would take place on the empire’s dissolution into a new form of ten kingdoms: among which, or cotemporarily with which, Antichrist, the Man of the Apostasy, would forthwith arise, and reign over the Roman world and empire in this its latest form; Rome itself, and its empire, having been revived to supremacy under him.
Moreover they were agreed that this Antichrist would persecute the Christian Church with a fierceness altogether unparalleled: and thus that there would be a second series of Roman persecutions, and a second series of martyrs slain under Roman oppression; persecutions that would only terminate in Christ’s coming and taking vengeance, at the end of the world. 29
Once more, as to the time of the vengeance on Rome, and its empire, that great vengeance so graphically described in Rev. 16 and 17, when the vials of God’s wrath should be poured out thereon, and "in her should be found the blood of prophets and saints, of all that had been slain on the earth," and the saints should be told "to reward her as she had rewarded them, and in the cup which she had filled to fill to her double," this time they inferred to be very nigh at hand.
For nothing, they reasoned, prevented Anti-christ’s development but the intervention of the Roman empire in its then existing state, 30 which state they thought would pass away speedily; and that then Antichrist’s predicted short-lived reign, and his persecution of but three and a half years would follow, and be succeeded instantly by Christ’s second coming and the consummation. 31
Not to add that certain considerations too of the age of the world, as if not far from 6000 years, began now to enter into their reasonings; and confirmed then the end was near. 32 Thus did the voice of divine prophecy, as their minds apprehended it in those times of fiery trial, correspond most exactly with the voice which fell on St. John’s ears in the fifth Seal’s vision, as if addressed to the martyred souls under the altar. "It was said to them that they should rest (waiting their avenging and reward 33 for a little season, until their brethren which should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled." Indeed this very passage of the Apocalypse was cited and commented on by them; as in part, and conjunctively with the other prophecies, an authority for this their expectation and hope. 34
It of course needs not to say that in regard to this last point, I mean the time to which they looked. for their final avenging and reward, History, the great interpreter, has proved them wrong. In fact the ‘phrase "yet a little season, just like the word "quickly " elsewhere used by our Lord respecting the time of his coming, was one of larger or less duration according to the standard by which it might be measured.
And I may remark here, what I shall have occasion to remark perhaps more than once again, that the phrases used in prophetic scripture respecting the time of the consummation, were purposely so framed as to allow of a duration shorter or longer being attached to them; and so of the Church in each age looking for its Lord’s advent as not far distant.
Admitting (what was generally understood to be the fact) that the great destroying vengeance on persecuting Rome was not to take place at the breaking up of its empire into ten kingdoms, but after their rise, and Antichrist’s cotemporary rise and reign over them, there was needed, in order to decide the length of the time still to intervene before that catastrophe, (so as indeed I have already hinted,) the decision of the two preliminary points following: viz. first, what the interval before the empire’s breaking up into its last decemregal form, and Antichrist’s cotemporary or immediately subsequent manifestation; secondly, what the length of the three and a half predicted years of his persecuting reign, and whether to be understood literally, or of a much longer period.
But on these questions it is not my present business to enter. Suffice it to have shown that the Christian Church and Fathers passed through and out of the period of the fifth Seal, and of the persecutions referred to in it, with the distinct conviction impressed on their minds, even as by a voice from heaven, that there only needed to be completed another and different series of martyrs, viz. those to be slain under Antichrist; and that then, without further delay, their Redeemer would surely manifest himself, and execute final vengeance on their enemies.
5. In the meanwhile there was to be fulfilled, in regard to the souls. of martyrs already under the altar, the fact symbolized by their investiture with white robes, just when the voice under this Seal ended speaking. A symbol certainly very remarkable! Explained forensically, or with reference to. persons condemned or arraigned as criminals, it signified their justification. So elsewhere, "The white robes are the justification of the saints." I In me of this investiture occurring in the inner sanctuary, or before God, so as in the passage just cited, or again in the case of the High Pries Joshua described in Zechariah, 34 it would imply justification in the sight of God.
But where the scene was the open altar-court, just as their dejection there under the altar indicated the condemnation and execution of the Christian saints as criminals before the world,— so their investiture with white on the same public scene must be construed to imply their as public justification before the world, and in the view of their fellow-men.
But how so? How could there be a public recognition of these martyrs’ righteousness, begun even before the opening of the sixth Seal, and that great revolution which it was to signify? Yet the fact was even so. Before Lactantius had yet finished that famous treatise De Divinis Institutionibus, 35 wherein he repeated, as its latest echo by the Church under Rome Pagan, that same prophetic voice about Rome, and the Antichrist, and the consummation, that we lately noted in the writings of the, Fathers of the third century that preceded him, 36 an edict of the persecutor Galerius was issued, (an edict agreed to by two of the other emperors) confessing, by implication at least, to the wrong he had done the Christians, putting an end to the persecution, and even entreating the Christians to pray to their God for him. 37
An act of justification this that was applicable of course as well to the memory of the martyred Christian confessors, as to the character of those that still survived: and thus surely a true fulfillment of this clause of the Apocalyptic vision.
Nor was it less notable at the period itself as a sign of the times. For it was a confession of the moral triumph of Christianity over Heathenism,38 while the latter was in all its imperial power and supremacy; and thus might almost seem to portend, sooner or later, even a political triumph following. And hence indeed it appeared, with regard to the slaughter of Christian saints by the Roman emperors, that whereas the varied calamities depicted under the three preceding Seals, were causes and symptoms of the decline of the Roman Heathen empire, politically considered, this too, which was prefigured under the fifth Seal, was in perfect consistency with the dramatic unity of the Seals, a cause and symptom of its decline: indeed that it was the immediate cause, as well as precursor, of its fall.