Chapter VI – The Sixth Seal


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; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth forth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; 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. bondman, and every freeman, hid themselves in the-dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and the 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 shall be able to stand?” Rev. 7: 12-17.

Thus, as on the fifth’s Seals opening, the Evangelist’s eye had been directed from the terrene landscape to the nearer altar-court, so now it was directed back from the altar court to the terrene landscape; with which landscape the temple and holy city adjoining were, as before observed, associated; and which seems to have appeared with both seas and land outspread in view, and with its heaven, (or sky) and heavenly luminaries above them.

It imaged evidently the Roman world: that in which the Christian church had already planted itself, and with which its future fortunes were, in God’s providence, to be most closely connected, even to the end. And as the Jewish-like Apocalyptic temple did fitly symbolize the faith and worship of Christ’s people through an atoning and mediating Redeemer, (the same that the ancient Jewish temple, altar, sacrifices, and priesthood had ever while standing prefigured,) and moreover the holy city symbolized their polity, as the aspirant and constituent members of the kingdom of heaven, so was the earth, outspread in vision, as fitly emblematic of its heathen inhabitants: even as of a people in taste, principle, and feeling belonging only to this world; of the earth,” as St. Paul expresses it, “and earthy.”

The heaven above this Apocalyptic earth, was, we must remember, its own firmamental heaven, or sky; being altogether distinct from that spiritual unchanging heaven constituted by the Divine Presence in the inner temple.

According to the usual scripture use of such terms, it was to be considered as representing the ruling department in the dominant polity; and its luminaries as le actual rulers, and governing powers, therein.

Now ere the sixth Seal was opened, these luminaries appeared fixed in the sky, and the earth at rest and still. But behold, on its opening, the whole scene in agitation! A great and sudden earthquake shakes the earth. The mountains and the island-rocks sink beneath the shock. The sun becomes black; the full moon blood-red, as in total eclipse. The stars fall from the heaven in which they were before shining, even as figs from a fig-tree in a windy tempest. Kings and generals, freemen and slaves, (dress probably in a measure distinguishing them,1) appear in flight; as men panic-struck, and seeking to eaves or hole in the rocks wherein to hide themselves. And this was chiefly observable” that in the cry which St. John beard uttered by them, no earthly foe was named as their object of terror. 2 They spoke as men conscious that Jesus that was crucified was their conqueror and their foe. They called on the rocks to hide them from Him who sat upon the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.

The general intent of this vision does not seem to me to have been difficult to understand. It surely betokened some sudden and extraordinary revolution in the Roman empire, which would follow chronologically after the era of martyrdoms depicted under the Seal preceding; a revolution arising from the triumph of the Christian cause over its enemies, and in degree complete and universal. No partial change would answer to the strength of the symbolic phraseology; nor, again, any mere overthrow of the persecuting emperors by other milder and more tolerant, but still heathen emperors.

Nothing less would answer it than a destruction of Heathenism itself throughout the empire, before the progress and power of Christianity; or, at east, a sweeping from their high places in it of Heathen powers and authorities: and this, not through the gentle progress of opinion, but with circumstances of force accompanying, such as to strike those Heathen opposers with consternation and dismay. Let us look then to history to see whether, so interpreted, the vision received its accomplishment.

Doubtless, according to mere human probabilities, it must have appeared most unlikely that such a consummation should be brought about, and at such a time: a time when Christians constituted but a small minority of the population;3 and when by the long previous persecution, they had been reduced apparently to the lowest point of depression. But unto Him who ruleth all things after his will, both in heaven and on earth, what are difficulties, what are improbabilities, to frustrate the accomplishment of His declared purpose? Rather, as has been often and most truly observed, man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. That precisely at the time depicted in the vision, the time following on the era of the Diocletian martyrdoms, a revolution of the character described took place in the Roman empire, is one of the most memorable and most astonishing facts of history. The cotemporary writers seem lost in admiration when they speak of it;4 and, in the calm estimate of modern philosophy, it has lost nothing of its, character of the marvellous.5

And whose then the agency employed? When God is about to act, the fittest instruments appear ever ready for his service. Behold, as in the olden times He raised up Cyrus, in order to be the restorer, agreeably with foregoing prophecies, of his captives from Babylon, so now from the far west, for the deliverance of his church in the Roman empire, as here promised, He raised up Constantine. Already that Prince was known as a favorer of the Christians,6 ere he bore down from the Alps against Maxentius, the son and successor of the persecuting emperor Maximian. 7

Then in a manner most extraordinary, and most illustrative of the prophecy under consideration, he avowed his espousal, of the Christian cause, and of that of Him whom the Christians worshiped, the crucified One From as early a date as of Nazareth, the LAMB of GOD. that of the great battle with Maxentius, according to the testimony of both Lactantius and Eusebius, he adopted the cross as his distinctive military ensign. 8

That object of abomination to the heathen Romans 9was seen “glittering on the helmets, engraved on the shields, and interwoven into the banners” of his soldiers. The Emperors own person was adorned by it, wrought of richest materials, and with finest workmanship. Above all in his principal banner, the labarum, 10 he displayed at its summit the same once accursed emblem; with a crown of gold and gems above it, and the monogram of the name of Him who, after bearing the one, now wore the other.

We may be sure that the question was in every mouth. Why so strange an ensign? And let it not be forgotten, that besides other reasons to impress him, as the excellence of the doctrine, the virtues of its professors, and other internal and external evidence of the truth of Christianity, there might have been mention made of a mysterious vision of a cross of flame, just before seen on the sky, in the night-watches, by the western emperor; and bow he had been warned in the vision, by a voice from heaven, to adopt that ensign of the cross, with the promise added that through it he could conquer. 11

Skepticism, as we know, has been frequent in expressing its disbelief of this asserted fact. For my own part I am unable to resist the force of Constantine’s solemn declaration to Eusebius of its truth. The time, as well as solemnity of his statement, a time when nothing was to be gained by the fiction, for it was made when life was drawing to a close, and, moreover, the whole character of Constantine, so little prone either to credulity or to deception, seem to me alike to forbid its rejection.

If true, it satisfactorily explains to us the fact of his adoption of the cross as his ensign, otherwise all but inexplicable; and as to its miraculousness, surely the case, if ever, was one that from its importance might seem to call for the supernatural intervention of the Deity. Thus Constantine was the first crusader; and, with better reason than the Princes of the eleventh century at Clermont, might feel, as he prosecuted the war, that it was “the will of God.” 12

“By this ensign thou shalt conquer.” Such was the tenor of the promise. And well, we know, was the promise fulfilled to Constantine. Army after army, emperor after emperor, (for since Diocletian’s division of it there were, according to the prophetic intimation, several cotemporary emperors, or “kings of the earth,”) 13 were routed, and fled, and perished, in battle after battle, before the cross and its warriors; Maxentius’ generals, Maxentius himself, Maximin, 14 and, after his apostasy to the pagan cause, Licinius. 15 A bas-relief still remaining on Constantine’s triumphal arch at Rome,16 represents to us the terror of Maxentius and of his army, in their flight across the Tiber after defeat in the battle of the Milvian bridge. 17 A similar consternation attended the others also. And this was chiefly remarkable, that it was not the terror of their earthly victor’s wrath that alone oppressed them. There was a consciousness of the powers of heaven acting against them; above all, the crucified One, the Christians’ God.

For the war, in each case, was felt to be a religious war. In the persecution just preceding, the emperors Diocletian and Maximian had struck medals of themselves in the characters, and under the names, of Jove and Hercules, destroying the serpent-like hydra-headed monster Christianity; 18 and these titles of Pagan mythology had been adopted in the same spirit by their successors When Maxentius went forth to battle, he went fortified by heathen oracles; the champion of heathenism against the champion of the cross. When Maximin was about to engage with Licinius, he made his vow to Jupiter, that, if successful, he would extirpate Christianity. When Licinius, again, marched against Constantine and his crusaders, he was urged to the enterprise by the response of heathen gods that he had consulted: and then, in public harangue before the soldiers, he ridiculed the cross, and staked the falsehood of Christianity on his success. 19

Thus, in all these cases, the terrors of defeat must have been aggravated by a sense of their gods having failed them; and of the power of heaven being with CHRIST, the Christians’ God, against them. It was observed that wherever the labarum, the banner of the cross, was raised, there victory attended. In the war against Constantine, after Licinius’ apostasy, “Licinius,” says Gibbon, “felt and dreaded the power of that consecrated banner; the sight of which in the distress of battle animated the soldiers of Constantine with invincible enthusiasm, and scattered terror and dismay through the ranks of the adverse legions.” \ 20 All this must needs have deepened the impression. Besides which there are to be remembered the recorded dying terrors of one and another of the persecuting emperors. A dark cloud seems to have brooded over the death-bed of Maximian, if not over Diocletian’s also. The report was, that oppressed by remorse for his crimes he strangled himself.21 Again, Galerius had from an agonizing and awful death bed evinced his remorse of conscience, by entreating the Christians in a public proclamation, to pray to their God (i. e. Christ) for him. 22

And Maximin soon after, in similar anguish of mind and body, confessed his guilt, and called on Christ to compassionate his misery. Thus did a sense of the wrath of the crucified One, the Lamb of God, whom they now knew to be seated on the throne of power, lie heavy, intolerably heavy on them.

And when we combine these terrors of the death-bed with those of the lost battle-field,-which latter terrors must have been experienced alike by officers and soldiers, each active partisan in the persecution and the war, including low as well as high, the slaves 23 as well as the freemen, all in short that are particularized in the sacred vision, when, I say, we consider the terrors of these Christ-blaspheming kings of the Roman earth, thus routed with their partisans before the Christian host, and miserably flying and perishing, there was surely that in the event which, according to the usual construction of such scripture figures, may well be deemed to have answered to the symbols of the prefigurative vision before us: in which vision kinks and generals, freemen and slaves,24 appeared flying and seeking to the eaves of the rocks to hide them; to hide them from the face of Him that sate on the throne of power, even from the wrath of the Lamb.

Thus, under the first shocks of this great earthquake, had the Roman earth been agitated, an the enemies of the Christians destroyed, or driven into flight and consternation. Thus, in the political heavens, had the sun of paean supremacy been darkened, the moon become eclipsed and blood-red, and of the stars not a few been shaken violently to the ground.

But the prophecy had not as yet received its entire fulfillment. The stars of the pagan heaven had not all fallen, nor had the heaven itself been altogether rolled up like a scroll, and vanished away. On Constantine’s first triumph, and after the first terrors of the opposing emperors and their hosts, though the imperial edict gave to Christianity its full rights and freedom, let it allowed to the heathen worship a free toleration also. But very soon there followed measures of marked preference in the imperial appointments to the Christians and their faith.

And, at length, after Constantine’s final defeat of Licinius, and establishment as sole emperor over the Roman world, in spite of the indignation and resentment of the Pagans, he issued edicts for the suppression of their sacrifices, the destruction of their temples’ and the toleration of no other form of public worship but the Christian. 25

His successors on the throne followed up the same object by attaching penalties of the severest character to the public profession of Paganism.26 And the result was that, under Theodosius’ reign, before the century had ended, its stars had all fallen to the ground: its very heaven, or political and religious system, vanished: and, on the earth, the old pagan institutions, laws, rites, and worship been all but annihilated; and its votaries constrained to seek to eaves and rocks (erst the Christian refuges,) wherein to hide their devotions, prohibited on penalty of death.

The interpretation that I have given to the various symbols of this Seal has been illustrated and confirmed, by one and another interpreter, from the similar use of similar figures in other passages of prophetic scripture. Thus, to show how, from earliest times, the symbols of the sun, moon, and stars were used of rulers, so as I have explained them, a reference has been made to Joseph’s dream, (Gen. 37: 9) in which the sun and moon are expressly interpreted of the chief heads of a nascent nation, the stars of its inferior beads.

To illustrate the meaning of an earthquake, and the consequent convulsions and changes in the firmamental heavens and their luminaries, there have been quoted passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, in which the symbol is used of political revolution in a state or kingdom, of the subversion of its institutions, and fall of its governing powers.

So in Jeremiah’s vision, (4: 23, &c) of the destruction and desolation of the Jewish kingdom by the Babylonians: “I beheld the land, and lo ! it was without form and void; and the heavens, and they had no light. I beheld the mountains, and lo ! they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly. I beheld, and all the cities thereof were broken down, at the presence of the Lord, and by his fierce anger. For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens be black. The whole city shall flee from the noise of the horsemen and bowmen : they shall go into thickets, and climb up on [or into] the rocks.” So in Ezekiel, (34:7, &c) of the overthrow of Pharaoh and his kingdom by the king of Babylon:

” When I shall put thee out, I will cover the heavens, and make the stars thereof dark: I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and I will set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord.” And so again in Isaiah, (13: 9, 10, 17,) of the overthrow of Babylon by the Medes : it being said that ” the day of the Lord should come against it, with his wrath and fierce anger; and that the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof should not give *their light, and the sun should be darkened in his going forth, as the moon should not cause her light to shine.” 27

n which passages besides the more prominent parallelisms with the Apocalyptic imagery in the symbolic changes noted of the heavenly luminaries, it will be well, I think, to observe also what is said of the presence of the Lord as manifested, though ‘acting by human agency: and again, of the day of the Lord and his fierce anger being shown in the subversion of the former political government, and the dethronement and destruction’#8217; of it s political governors, even in cases where, after the first shock of the catastrophe, it does not appear that the conquered gene. rally were treated with any particular oppression, or the yoke made very grievous.

Finally, to illustrate what is said of the pagan hosts “hiding themselves in the dens and rocks of the mountains, and saying to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne,” &c, a reference has been made to Hosea’s prediction 28 of the Israelites thus calling on the mountains to cover them, and the hills to fall on them, under the terror and calamities of Shalmanezer’s invasion. To which we may add what is told us, historically, of the Israelites hiding in such rocky caverns, when so ever, as in the times of Saul or of the Maccabees ,” 29 the enemy might have gained possession of the country.

All which being put together, there will not, I believe, remain a single symbolic phrase in this prophecy of the sixth Seal unillustrated, or with the interpretation referring it to a political revolution (such as has been here given) unconfirmed, by similar figures in other prophecies, to which the scriptural context has itself already furnished a Similar interpretation.

Since, however, in regard to not a little of the phraseology of the prophecy, there is in so far a resemblance to what is said elsewhere of the catastrophe of the last great day of judgment, as to have induced with many a suspicion, while some a full conviction, that such must be the reference and meaning also here, it may be useful, with a view to the reader’s clearer and fuller persuasion, to look a little more closely into the subject: and to add yet a further observation or two, on the internal evidence derivable, first from the language of the prophetic description, as compared with that of other prophecies confessedly predictive of the last convulsions; secondly, from its relative position in the series of the Apocalyptic visions; in support of the meaning that I have attached to it.

And, first, it should be distinctly understood that the expressions here used respecting the earthquake, and the phenomena in the sun, moon, and stars, cannot be interpreted literally, or as referring to those physical changes in the material earth and firmament of heaven, which other prophecies lead us undoubtingly to expect at the consummation of the great day.

The clearest literal description of these physical changes is perhaps that given in 2 Peter 3:10-11 The day of the Lord shall come as a thief in the night, in the which the heavens, (or the firmament, Gen. 1:7, 8,) shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent beat; the earth also, and the works that are therein, shall be burned up.” 30

Now of a conflagration, like this, no hint is given in the vision of the sixth Seal. Moreover in such a conflagration neither would the sun become black as sackcloth, nor the moon Yea blood-red; still less the stars fall to the ground. The expressions must be taken metaphorically, and as referring to political changes, like those in the other parallel prophecies just before referred to. There seems to me a physical necessity for this, from what is said; as well as almost a necessity from what is not said: besides the necessity arising from the requirements of symbolic language, in a confessedly. symbolic prophecy.

Still the suspicion. may remain that, though referring to political revolution and changes, it may be the political changes attendant on the last great consummation. For that there are to be then, and in connection with the great final catastrophe of the earth’s drama, extraordinary political commotion and revolutions, is a truth revealed both in the Apocalypse itself, and in many other of the sacred prohecies.31

This I fully allow. But I think internal evidence is here, too, not wanting, to shew that it is not these that are intended in the sixth Seal. For, let but the description of the earthquake of the sixth Seal be compared with that of the 16th chapter of the Apocalyptic book, which latter is allowed on all hands to be the description of the great final political revolution, and how is it possible but that an unprejudiced mind will be struck with the marked differences? 32

The earthquake of the 16th chapter is so great, that “there never was any like it since the time that men were on the earth; this, simply, “a great earthquake.” And whereas the most prominent points of accompaniment and result in the former case are the tripartite division of the reality, Babylon receiving the wine-cup of God’s anger and a tremendous hailstorm falling on the inhabitants of the Roman earth, to neither one nor another of these is there the least allusion, in the description of the earthquake of the sixth Seal before us. Were the one indeed but a notice in brief, as it were, the other the description in detail, the omission and the difference would not be so remarkable.

And thus it seems to me very possible, and even probable, that the earthquake noticed on the sounding of the seventh Trumpet, at the close of chap. 11, may be the same in brief, as that of chap. 16 in detail, on the effusion of the seventh Vial. 33 But in the vision of the sixth Seal the description is as detailed and full, indeed more so, than that of chap. 16.

Thus my conclusion from simply comparing the descriptive language in the two passages is this, that they portray different and distinct earthquakes; that of the sixth Seal the less, that of the seventh Vial much the greater: although it is allowed that the former may be possibly in a certain sense typical of the latter; in the same way that a less event, of the same character, is often in scripture typical of a greater following:-a conclusion confirmed by the figuring of the earth, sea, and sky, in this same Seal’s next vision, as all restored; so as after the last earthquake they certainly will not be.34

Then, consider the vision further in respect of its relative position in the Apocalyptic series, and connection with, and sequence on, those the previous five Seals. And when we think how exactly every successive great epoch of change in the Roman Pagan Empire, with its characteristic causes and symptoms, from the time of Domitian’s death, at the close of the first century, to the persecution by Diocletian and Galerius at the beginning of the fourth, has been depicted, all in order, in the consecutive visions of the successive Seals preceding, and find ourselves thus brought by them to the very eve of the great politico-religious revolution of the time of Constantine’ I say, when, with the evidence of this its position and context, we consider the vision of the symbolic earthquake represented on the opening of the sixth Seal, it seems to me that all reasonable doubt as to its intended application is precluded; and that it cannot but be the prefiguration of that wonderful revolution.

Nor let me omit to observe, in further confirmation of this explanation, that the infidel illustrator of the Apocalyptic prefigurations fails not here’ as usual, to add his remarkable corroborative testimony. “The ruin of the Pagan religion,” says Gibbon, “is described by the sophists as a dreadful and amazing prodigy; which covered the earth with darkness, and restored the ancient dominion of chaos and of night.”