Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
We now enter upon the third group of visions (or, the fourth section of the book, if we include the epistles to the seven churches), which occupy chapters 12, 13, and 14, and close with the solemn scene of the harvest and the vintage (Revelation 14:14-20). The close of each series of visions is in harmony with their general intention, and, as such, affords a key to their meaning. The seals end in peace; the trumpets end in victory; the present visions end in harvest. We have been shown that toil and trouble shall end in rest and conflict in triumph; now we are to be shown that there is to be a harvest at the end of the world, when the fruits of the conflicting principles of life will have ripened, and when whatsoever a man hath sown that shall he also reap: and men will be seen as they are. This set of visions accordingly moves in a different plane from the earlier groups; starting from the same point as the others, it reviews the ground with a different purpose. It deals with the spiritual conditions of the great war between evil and good; it disrobes the false appearances which deceive men; it makes manifest the thoughts of men’s hearts; it shows that the great war is not merely a war between evil and good, but between an evil spirit and the Spirit of God: and that, therefore, the question is not only one between right and wrong conduct, but between true and false spiritual dispositions. Men look at the world, and they acknowledge a kind of conflict between evil and good; their sympathies are vaguely on the side of good; they admire much in Christianity; they are willing to think the martyred witnesses of the Church heroes; they think the reformers of past ages worthy of honour; they would not be averse to a Christianity without Christ or a Christianity without spirituality. They do not realise that the war which is raging round them is not a war between men morally good and men morally bad, but between spiritual powers, and that what the Gospel asks is not merely a moral life, but a life lived by faith in the Son of God, a life in which the spiritual dispositions are Godward and Christward. The Apocalypse, in this set of visions, unveils the spiritual aspects of the conflict, that we may know that the issue is not between Christianity and un-Christianity, but between Christianity and anti-Christianity. Hitherto we have seen the more outward aspects of the great war. Now we are to see its hidden, secret, spiritual—yes, supernatural aspects—that we may understand what immeasurably divergent and antagonistic principles are in conflict under various and specious aspects in the history of the world. Accordingly, we are shown the child encountered by the dragon, the woman in conflict with the dragon, the wild beast as the adversary of the lamb. We see no longer the battle under human forms, as the struggle for the possession of the Temple; but we see clearly and unmistakably the real issue which is being fought out, and we see the real spiritual work which the Church is designed to accomplish in the world. The motto of this section might well be, “He that is not with me is against me”—“He that gathereth not with me scattereth;” for only those who are truly with Christ will avoid falling under the yoke of one of the three enemies of Christ— the dragon and the two wild beasts animated and inspired by him.
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:(1) And there appeared . . .—Better, And a great sign was seen in the heaven. The word sign is preferable to “wonder,” both in this verse and in Revelation 12:3. It is the same word which is rendered sign in Revelation 15:1. It is a sign which is seen: not a mere wonder, but something which has a meaning; it is not “a surprise ending with itself,” but a signal to arrest attention, and possessing significance; there is “an idea concealed behind it.” (Comp. Note on John 2:11.)
A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.—All the lights of heaven are brought together here for a description which cannot fail to remind us of the picture of the Shulamite in the Canticles (Song of Solomon 6:10): “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners (or, the heavenly host)?” It is the picture of the bride, the Church. The beams of the divine glory clothe her; she has caught—like Moses—the radiance of her Lord, whose countenance was as the sun (Revelation 1:16); the moon is beneath her feet; she rises superior to all change, and lays all lesser lights of knowledge under tribute; she is crowned with a crown of twelve stars: the illustrious members of the Church (twelve being the representative number in Old Testament as well as New Testament times) form her crown of rejoicing in the day of Christ.
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.(2) And she . . .—Better, And being with child, she crieth, travailing, and tormented to bring forth. All life dawns in anguish, according to the ancient fiat (Genesis 3:16); but this is not all. There is an anguish of the Church which Christ laid upon her; it is the law of her life that she must bring forth Christ to the world; it is not simply that she must encounter pain, but that she cannot work deliverance without knowing suffering. Thus the Apostles felt: the love of Christ constrained them; woe it would be to them if they did not preach the Gospel; necessity was laid upon them; they spoke of themselves as travailing in birth over their children till Christ was formed in them. This, then, is the picture, the Church fulfilling her destiny even in pain. The work was to bring forth Christ to men, and never to be satisfied till Christ was formed in them, i.e., till the spirit of Christ, and the teaching of Christ, and the example of Christ were received, loved, and obeyed, and men transformed to the same image, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
But there was to be opposition; the enemy is on the watch to destroy the likeness of Christ wherever it was seen.
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.(3) And there appeared . . .—Better, And another sign was seen in the heaven; and behold a great red dragon. This, too, is a sign, and has a meaning. The dragon stands for some dread and hostile power. “The dragon is that fabulous monster of whom ancient poets told, as large in size, coiled like a snake, blood red in colour . . . insatiable in voracity, and ever athirst for human blood”—a fit emblem of him whom our Lord declared to be a murderer from the beginning; for the dragon is intended here to describe him who, in Revelation 12:9, is also said to be that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan. The red colour is the colour of flame and blood, and the symbol of destruction and slaughter. The dragon is the emblem of the evil spirit, the devil, the perpetual antagonist of good, the persecutor of the Church in all ages (comp. Psalm 74:13): just as the dragon is sometimes employed to represent the Egyptian power, the ancient foe of Israel (Isaiah 51:9; Ezekiel 29:3).
Having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns (diadems) upon his heads.—This is the further description of the dragon. He is one, yet diverse; one, as an evil spirit; diverse, in the varieties of his power. The woman is hut one: but her foe is multiform; she has one trust to keep, one work to do, and can but fulfil it in her Master’s way: evil is bound by no law, regards no scruple, and exerts its power through any channel and by every means. Is there not also an assumption of divine similitude here in the use of the number seven? It is at least the representation of the great and world-wide power which he exercises as the prince of this world, whose kingdom is in much a parody of the true kingdom. The whole description should be compared with the account given of the beast in Revelation 17:3; Revelation 17:7; Revelation 17:10; Revelation 17:12. There the seven heads are explained as seven kings, and the heads here are crowned; the ten horns are also explained as ten kings. The sevenfold kingship and the tenfold power of the world are thus described as belonging to the dragon. The picture here, as the picture of the wild beast in Revelation 17, represents, as concentrated into a single hostile form, all the varying forces and successive empires which have opposed or oppressed the people of God, and sought to destroy their efforts for good: for all evil has its root in a spirit at enmity with God. Hence the dragon appears armed with all the insignia of those sovereignties and powers which have been animated by this spirit.
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.(4) And his tail . . .—Translate, And his tail drags (or, sweeps) away the third part of the stars of the heaven, and casts them to the earth. The stars are the light- bearers, the illustrious of earth, who were given by God high place that they might be burning and shining lights for Him. A large proportion of these are drawn away in the train of evil; they are cast down from their high position of noble opportunities of good work and great work; they are dragged down from the height of the grandest possibilities of good to the low level of a life enslaved to evil.
And the dragon.—Translate, And the dragon stands (not “stood”) before the woman who is about to bring forth, that whenever she has brought forth he may devour her child. The spirit of evil is represented as ever on the watch to destroy the first tokens of better things. Our minds go back to the hatred and fear of Pharaoh, setting a watch for the offspring of Israel and ordering their destruction; and even more are we reminded of the jealous hatred of Herod seeking the life of the infant Christ. It seems clear that it is on this last incident that the present vision is primarily built up; but its meaning is much wider than this. It shows us that evermore, as Herod waited to destroy Christ, the devil, the old spirit whose malignity wrought through the fears of Pharaoh and of Herod, is on the watch to destroy every token of good and every resemblance to Christ in the world. The mission of the Church is to bring forth in her members this life of Christ before men: the aim of the wicked spirit is to destroy that life. The same hostility which was shown to the infant Christ is active against His children: “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.(5) And she brought forth . . .—Translate, And she brought forth a man child, who is to shepherd all the nations with (it is, literally, in) a rod of iron. There can be no doubt that this man child is Christ. The combination of features is too distinct to admit of doubt, it is the one who will feed His flock like a shepherd (Isaiah 40:12), who is to have, not His own people, but all nations as His inheritance (Psalm 2:7-9), and whose rule over them is to be supreme and irresistible. But the fact that this child is Christ must not cause us to limit the meaning of the vision to the efforts of the evil one to destroy the infant Jesus; for it is also the Christ in the Church which the wicked one hates: and wherever Christ dwells in any heart by faith, and wherever the preachers of the gospel in earnest travail for their Master, seek to lift up Christ, there will the foe be found, like the fowls of the air, ready to carry away the good seed. Though the basis of the vision is in the historical fact, the power of the vision reaches over a wider area, and forcibly reminds us that as there are irreconcilable principles at work in the world, so all these, when traced to their original forms, are the Spirit of Christ and the spirit of the devil.
And her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.—The efforts of the evil one to destroy are thwarted; the child is snatched away and placed out of the range of the dragon’s power. The prince of this world might instigate Israel to take Jesus Christ and with wicked hands crucify and kill Him, but the eternal divine life of Him who had power to lay down His life and take it again, and whose years were for ever and ever, was beyond the reach of every hostile power; and after death and resurrection, Christ ascended up where He was before. But the vision is designed to assure us that, precisely because of this, so all life in Christ is beyond the power of the evil one, and that the forces hostile to good are powerless against that life which is hid with Christ in God. The Church may be as a weak, oppressed, and persecuted woman, but her faith rises up as a song from the lips of its members. “God hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” The contest is between the man child and the dragon; and those who in heart and mind ascend to where Christ is know that the contest is not one of mere ideas, but a conflict between the Christ, who is with them always, though He has ascended, and all the powers of evil, which will be smitten down by the rod of His power.
And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.(6) And the woman fled . . .—Translate, And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath there a place prepared from God, that there they may nourish her for a thousand two hundred and sixty days. The flight of the woman into the wilderness, and her fortunes there, are more fully described in Revelation 12:13. This verse simply tells us that the woman fled; we read afterwards that it was persecution which drove her into the wilderness. As long as the evil one can be called the prince of this world: as long, that is, as the world refuses to recognise her true Prince, and pays homage to worldliness, and baseness, and falseness in heart, mind, or life, so long must the Church, in so far as she is faithful to Him who is true, dwell as an exile in the wilderness. This feeling it was—not any hostility to life as life, or to life’s duties—which led the Apostle to speak of Christians as strangers and pilgrims, and of the Church as another Israel, whom a greater than Moses or Joshua was conducting to a land of better promise (Hebrews 4:8-9). The woman, the representative of the Church, has a place prepared by God for her in the wilderness; she is not altogether uncared for; she has a place prepared, and nourishment. God provides her with a tabernacle of safety (Psalm 90:1), and with the true Bread “which came down from heaven” (Exodus 16:15; Psalm 78:24-25; John 6:49-50), and with the living water from the Rock (John 4:14; John 7:37-39; 1Corinthians 10:3-4). The time of the sojourn in the wilderness is twelve hundred and sixty days, a period corresponding in length to the forty-two months during which the witnesses prophesied; it is the period of the Church’s witness against predominant evil. Driven forth, her voice, though but as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, is lifted up on behalf of righteousness and truth.
(7) And there was war . . .—Translate, And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels to war with the dragon; and the dragon warred and his angels. This is one of those passages which has ever been regarded as more or less perplexing. It has afforded material for many poetic fancies, and has been the occasion of much speculative interpretation. We shall fail to catch the spirit of its meaning if we insist upon detaching the passage from its context; and the more so that the structure of the chapter seems to give an express warning against doing so. The narrative of the woman’s flight into the wilderness is suspended that this passage may be inserted. Could we have a clearer indication of the anxiety of the sacred writer to connect this war in heaven with the birth and rapture of the man child? The man child is born; born a conqueror. The dragon is His foe, and the powers of the foe are not confined to the material and historical world: he is a power in the world spiritual; but the man child is to be entirely a conqueror. His rapture into heaven is the announcement that there, in the very highest, He is acknowledged victor; and His victory is won over the power of the dragon, the old serpent, whose head is now bruised. “The prince of this world cometh,” said Jesus Christ, “and hath nothing in Me.” “Now is the judgment of this world; now is the prince of this world cast out. And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me.” Do we need more? There is mystery—unexplained mystery, perhaps—about this war in heaven, but there need be none about the general occasion referred to; it is the overthrow of the evil one by Christ: the death-blow given by the Lord of Life to him who had the power of death; it is the victory of Bethlehem, Calvary, and Olivet which is commemorated, and the effects of which are seen to transcend the sphere of the things seen. But why have we Michael and his angels introduced? This may be one of those unexplained mysteries referred to above. Some, indeed, think that this Michael is a designation of our Lord Himself, and of Him alone; but a consideration of the other passages in which Michael is mentioned (notably, Daniel 10:13, where Michael is called “one of the chief princes”) leaves this limited meaning doubtful, and almost suggests conflict among the spiritual hierarchies. It may, however, be the case that the name Michael—the meaning of which is, “who is like unto God”—is a general name applied to any who for the moment represent the cause of God in the great conflict against evil. It may thus belong, not to any one angel being, but be a kind of type-name used for the champion and prince of God’s people, and so employed in this passage to denote Him who is the Captain of our salvation.
And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.(8) And prevailed not . . .—Better, And their power failed them, and not even was place for them found any more in the heaven. The result of the war was the dragon’s defeat. The whole power of the evil hosts failed them. There is an inherent weakness in evil: a spot which may be touched whereupon all its vaunted strength withers. So complete was the overthrow, that even their place knew them no more. “I went by, and, lo! he was gone; I sought him, but he could nowhere be found.”
And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.(9) And the great dragon . . .—Better, And he was thrown down, the great dragon, the ancient serpent, he that is called the Devil and Satan: he who deceives the whole world was thrown to the earth, and his angels were thrown with him. Thus the victory of Christ is marked by the overthrow of the great adversary. The stronger than the strong one has come, and taken away his armour (Luke 11:21-22). The death-blow is given. The prince of this world (who found nothing in Christ) is judged (John 16:11). The adversary is described as the dragon, the fierce and cruel foe who is ever ready to devour (1Peter 5:8). The ancient serpent. The serpent was used as an emblem of the evil principle. (Comp. Genesis 3:1). But the head of the ancient foe of man is now bruised: he is the devil, the accuser and calumniator. He is called the accuser of the brethren in the next verse; he is Satan, the adversary, and he is the seducer, the deceiver, as he is a liar, and the father of it (John 8:44).
And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.(10) And I heard a loud voice . . .—Better, And I heard a great voice in the heavens saying, Now is come the salvation, and the might, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ. The definite article is placed before the words “salvation” and “might.” The words of this doxology are like an echo of the close of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer “Thy kingdom come” seems answered. Now is come the kingdom. But it is not the full establishment of the kingdom which is here described; it is rather the manifestation of it. Since our Master passed into the heavens—and His victory is achieved, we know Him to be King, and even while we pray “Thy kingdom come” we yet confess “Thine is the kingdom”—the salvation so anxiously looked for (1Peter 1:10); the power so much needed by weak and sinful men (1Peter 1:5 and 1Corinthians 1:24); and the kingdom which cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28). The accuser of the brethren is cast down. This is another reason for joy and another feature of the salvation. The habit of the accuser is expressed by the use of the present tense. We should read not “who accused,” but “who accuseth.” Night and day he accused. (Comp. Zechariah 3:1, and Job 1:9; Job 2:5.) In Jewish writings, Michael is called “the advocate” (sunegor), and stands in opposition to the accuser (kategor); but now the accuser is cast down; for who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect, when it is God that justifieth, when it is Christ that died? (Romans 8:33-34.)
And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.(11) And they overcame him . . .—Better, And they conquered him (not “by,” but) on account of the blood of the Lamb, and on account of the word of their testimony, &c. They overcame him—i.e., the accuser, the devil: their victory over him is “owing to” the blood of the Lamb. Who is he that condemneth, when Christ hath died? What power can the accusations of the adversary have when the Lamb of God hath taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29), and when we have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus? (Hebrews 10:19.) Dean Alford mentions the tradition that Satan accuses men all days of the year except on the Day of Atonement. But their victory is also in virtue of the word of their testimony: in virtue of the word to which they bore witness; not simply, I think, because they had a word of God to which they could bear witness, but because they had a word of God and did bear witness to it. The Christian victory is a victory of dependence and of obedience: of dependence on Him without whom they can do nothing; and of obedience to Him: it is in keeping of His commandments there is great reward: and in bearing testimony that the testimony becomes a power and a treasure. So it was the man who did Christ’s commandments who was like the man whose house was founded on the rock. Theoretical religion relaxes the energy of faith, even though it may brace the intellect; practical religion invigorates faith, gives it its force, and moulds the heroism of those who, in their love of Christ, “love not their lives even unto death.” It is thought that these last words imply that the martyred saints alone are spoken of. This seems to me a mistake. It is true that in the martyr we have the fullest practical token of that spirit of devotion to Christ which loves Him more than life itself; but the spirit of such devotion and such love has breathed in thousands who have never died the martyr’s death, but who have devoted their lives to Him they loved. The martyr spirit needs not death to show itself; many lose their lives for Christ’s sake who have never been called to lay down their lives for Him, and these, as truly as those who have passed away in the shroud of flame, have loved not their lives unto the death. “He may bid us die for Him: He does bid us live for Him. If we do not the one—the less—we may be quite sure that we shall never rise to the other—the higher and the more glorious” (Dr. Vaughan).
Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.(12) Therefore rejoice . . .—Better, For this cause rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that tabernacle in them. The words “for this cause” must be taken to refer to the overthrow of the evil one. This is the cause of joy to the heavens, and to them that tabernacle (not “dwell”) in them. The word is (as in Revelation 7:15; Revelation 13:6; Revelation 21:3) “tabernacle.” This allusion to the tabernacle where the glory of God and the mercy-seat were to be found, is not without force. The sacred imagery of the tabernacle of witness calls to mind the safe dwelling which the sanctuary of God afforded to those whose testimony was given in the wilderness of sorrow. Those who tabernacled in the secret place of the Most High could rejoice with joy unspeakable.
Woe to the inhabiters . . .—Translate, Woe to the earth and the sea! (the words “to the inhabiters of” are not found in the best MSS.) because the devil is gone down to you, having great wrath, knowing (or, because he knoweth: his knowledge that his season of power is short is the reason of his great wrath) that he hath (but) a short season. The painful consciousness of defeat has roused a deeper and more obstinate rage. Sin, which blunts the conscience, blinds the reason, and drives men madly to attempt the impossible, or to rouse
“the unconquerable will
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield.”
The woe to the sea and earth is simply a warning voice to all that, though the foe is overcome and death smitten, yet that he has power, quickened by defeat and fear, for a last struggle; and that therefore they need to be sober and vigilant against the adversary. His season is short. He may be active, sowing tares among the wheat and animating various hostile powers, such as the wild beasts of Revelation 13; but he has only a season: there is a limit to his power and the time of his power. “A little while “was the word our Lord used to denote His time of absence (John 16:16-22):” Behold, He comes quickly!”
And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child.(13) And when the dragon . . .—The wrath of the defeated dragon is manifested in persecution of the woman. The present verse explains the reason of the flight into the wilderness mentioned in Revelation 12:6.
And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.(14) And to the woman . . .—Better, And there were given to the woman (the) two wings of the great eagle (the definite article is used before “great eagle”), that she might fly into the wilderness, unto her place, where she is nourished there for a season, and seasons, and half a season, from the face of the serpent. The woman is persecuted and driven into the wilderness: yet it is with the eagle wings given her by her Lord that she flies; the serpent drives her into the wilderness: yet it is in the wilderness that her place is prepared by God. The way that seems hard is the way that is most blest. The opposition of the dragon brings her blessings that she never would have received except in persecution; neither the eagle power nor the heavenly sustenance had been hers without the serpent’s hate. Thus is the trial of faith precious in bringing us to know the priceless blessings of heavenly help and heavenly food. She is given eagle’s wings. God had spoken of the deliverance of Israel under a similar emblem, “Ye have seen . . . how I bare you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself” (Exodus 19:4; comp. Deuteronomy 32:10-12). There is a difference as well as a resemblance in the emblem here. In Exodus God is said to have borne Israel on eagles’ wings: here the wings are given to the woman. The strength of the earlier dispensation is a strength often used for, rather than in, the people of God; the strength of the latter is a strength in them: “They mount up with wings as eagles” (Isaiah 40:31). The place is not a chance spot: it is prepared of God; it is in the wilderness, but still it is the place God prepared for her. It is always a delight to faith to mark how the ordering of God works in and through the wilfulness and wickedness of the enemy: the Son of man goeth, as it was written, though there is a “woe” against the man by whom He is betrayed. The wicked one can never drive us from God’s place, but only to it, unless we are enemies to ourselves. She is nourished in the wilderness. (See Notes on Revelation 12:6.) The length of her sojourn is here called a season, seasons, and half a season; it was called twelve hundred and sixty days in Revelation 12:6. The period is in both cases the same in length, viz., three years and a half—i.e., the season (one year), the seasons (two years), and the half season (half a year). This is the period of the Church’s trouble and persecution. It is not to be sought by any effort to find some historical period of persecution corresponding in length to this, lasting three years and a half, or twelve hundred and sixty days or years. No such attempt has hitherto been crowned with success. The period is symbolical of the broken time (the half of the seven, the perfect number) of the tribulation of God’s people. There may be some future period in which the vision may receive even more vivid fulfilment than it has hitherto received; but the woman has been nourished in the wilderness in the ages that are gone, and her sustenance there by God is an experience of the past, and will be in the future. It is not only in one age, but in every age, that God gives His children bread in the day of adversity, during the season that the pit is being dug for the ungodly. In many an era the servant of God can exclaim:” Thou preparedst a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”
And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.(15) And the serpent . . .—Translate, And the serpent cast out of his mouth after the woman water as a river, that he might make her to be carried away by the river. The foe of the woman was described as a dragon for his cruelty and fierceness—as a serpent for his subtlety. The first attack on the woman is pictured as persecution by the dragon: from this she escapes by flight; but the subtlety of the enemy finds another device: the foe (now described as a serpent) pours forth water as a river to sweep away the woman. The emblem is nut uncommon in the Bible. Invasion is described as “an overflowing flood” (Jeremiah 46:7-8; Jeremiah 47:2; comp. Isaiah 8:7-8) The same emblem is used in Psalm 74:2-6 to describe the uprising of a people’s ill-will. The floods, the rivers, the waves of the sea, are employed to express popular movements. The woman that cannot be destroyed by positive persecution may be swept away by a hostile public opinion. It is not the rulers alone who stand up against the Lord and His Church: an infuriated populace may be stirred up against them. The temper of the mob occasioned as much suffering and as many deaths in early Christian days as did the political authorities. Ill-regulated popular impulses, leading to violence and unwise action, whether nominally for Christianity or against it, have done enough of the devil’s work in the world.
And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.(16) And the earth . . .—Translate, And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and drank up the river, &c. This is generally understood of some earthly power which is raised up to protect the Church against persecution. Just as Persia was raised up to aid Israel after they had been swept away by the flood of Babylonish conquest, so does help come to the persecuted Church through the cultured Roman world, or through some other worldly power, “barbarian and godless in its beginning, but destined in due time to embrace, in name at least, the faith once abhorred, and to introduce that new order of things which should make a nominal Christianity the religion of states and nations, and secure it for ever against the risk of a repetition of bygone persecutions” (Dr. Vaughan). The passage seems to want a wider interpretation. By the flood or river we understand all great popular movements against Christianity: the earth swallows up these; they diffuse themselves for a time, but mother earth absorbs them all, for the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, and no movement hostile to truth can permanently succeed: the eternal laws of truth and right are ultimately found stronger than all the half truths, whole falsehoods, and selfishness which give force to such movements. In a mysterious way, every devil-born flood of opinion, or violence, or sentiment, will sink beneath the surface; they rise like a river, they are tasted, and then rejected. The laws of the earth are against their permanent success. The finest epic of the world might have for its motto: “The earth helped the woman.” Creation is ultimately a witness for righteousness and truth. It is not one nation, one age, which is represented here; it is an eternal law.
And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.(17) And the dragon . . .—Translate, And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and departed (not merely “went,” but departed, as one baffled in his attempt to carry the woman away by the river) to make war with the rest of her seed, who Keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus. Omit the word Christ. The attempt to sweep away the Christian Church is vain. The wrath of man has always been found to turn to God’s praise; the earth has always helped the woman; out of a thousand seeming defeats the Church of Christ has arisen; the banner of the Lord has been lifted up over every flood. But the foe will not give up his attacks. He can make war upon individual Christians; he may cease to assail the collective Church of Christ, but he can assail Christians by a thousand discomforts, by petty opposition, by undermining their morals, by making them unpopular, not as Christians, but as “very particular” Christians: for those thus assailed are they who “keep the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus.” It is the old combination of a holy life and a fidelity to their Master which is the test of true loyalty. They take heed to themselves; they abide in Christ; they take heed to the teaching, that Christ’s word may abide in them. They keep His word, and they witness to Him in lip and life.