The Mystery of Babylon
To the mass of mankind the Bible is a closed book. They need someone to open the book. In a lesser degree this is true also of His beloved saints. Like the disciples on the way to Emmaus, they are sad because the book is closed to their hearts so that they cannot understand the strange scenes they had witnessed. But how their hearts glowed when He opened their understandings that they might understand the Scriptures! And what is sweeter than to have the Word unfold its treasures to us and reveal Him Who is Author in all His varied excellencies?
No part of the Scriptures seems so securely closed as the Apocalypse. Instead of being the unveiling of Jesus Christ, it is generally taken as a covering, thick and impenetrable, intended to hide rather than reveal, after the manner of a parable. But the covering is not on the book. It lies on our own understanding. It is an unveiling in the fullest sense of the word. A most striking confirmation of this fact lies in the frequent recurrence of the word "open." Things which are now closed and covered will then be opened and exposed to view.
The Revelation unveils the glories of Jesus Christ by means of four pairs of "openings." Heaven above, the earth beneath, the divine scrolls, and God's holy dwelling place are opened to our gaze. Once we master the various openings as they are announced, we will get a good grasp of the whole book. These "openings" are like the rising curtain which reveals the stage set to suit the scenes of the ensuing act in the greatest of human tragedies. They give a clue to the character and scope of the succeeding vision.
The interest and instruction of these openings is greatly intensified when we note that they occur in pairs. We read first of a door opened in heaven (4:1) and last of all heaven itself opened (19:11). The earth has a pit, the shaft of which is opened to allow the infernal cavalry emerge for its five months' career of torment (9:2); and the earth opens her mouth to swallow up the flood with which the dragon intends to engulf the woman (12:16). Note the contrast: the smoke and the locusts issue out of the earth to scourge mankind. It is the portal of Apollyon's host. Yet, on the other hand, God makes the earth open its mouth and save His people from the dragon. The worshipers of the beast are tormented with the deathless sting: the holy people are preserved alive in the wilderness.
Besides this, books, or scrolls, are opened. The greater part of the entire prophecy is occupied with the twelve times repeated "opening" of the seven sealed scroll. This scroll may be best described in modern terms as a mortgage. Man has mortgaged his title to the earth to the enemy. Who can pay the price and redeem the allotment?
In Israel of old when an allotment was thus mortgaged, it was put on record and sealed, with the signatures of the witnesses on the outside. When the allotment was redeemed the seals were broken and the allotment reverted to its proper owner. So the opening of the seals gives us a clue as to what must follow. The usurpers must be ousted from their lawless tenancy and the rights and titles forfeited by the first Adam must be regained by the Last Adam. He has the right to do it because He is the Lamb: He has the power to do it because He is the Lion.
The companion opening is that in chapter 20:12. Here the books which contain God's accounts with His creatures are opened and they are judged according to what is written therein.
The pair of openings which are concerned with heaven are especially significant. At present heaven is shut; the door is barred. Communication between heaven and earth has been cut off. Man is having his own way now: God is not interfering. But when the time comes for the unveiling of His Christ, the first intimation is the opening of heaven's door. This reveals the judgment throne and is the key to the judgments that follow. Each item is significant. The full-orbed rainbow is the token of God's agreement not to engulf the earth in a water grave. The lightning and thundering show the fiery cleansing which is in store for the earth. And when the action denoted by this scene has been fully accomplished, what do we see? Why, heaven itself is opened (19:11) and the Rider on the white horse comes forth to finish the fierce judgment. Henceforth earth and heaven are no longer walled apart but are as they should be, neighbors on the best of terms. The door opened in heaven is judgment indirect, obscure, providential; the opened heaven reveals the Judge Himself.
The most important pair of openings are found in the heart of the whole book. One is the opening of the temple of God (11: 19) and the other the opening of the tabernacle of the testimony (15:5). These two openings contain the very kernel of the apocalypse. Both of these openings are concerned with the dwelling place of God. This is important. No nation, except Israel, had anything to do with God's house. They alone will be concerned with what transpires within those sacred precincts.
This division (11:19-19:11) gives us the same period, the same events, which occupied the previous divisions (4:1-11:19). There they are viewed from the throne. Now they are reviewed from the temple. Just as the books of the Kings give us the human side of Israel's history and the Chronicles the divine side of the very same period, so here we have the same period of time, the same personages and the same events, but all is considered with reference to its bearing on the priest nation.
If the events under the two temple openings follow the previous division then its scenes follow the setting up of the kingdom in power, for the seventh seal has been broken and the world kingdom has become our Lord's and His Christ's. This cannot be. The kingdom does not come until the close of these visions. The beast is slain and Babylon destroyed before the kingdom can be set up.
The four pairs of openings may be tabulated thus:
A door opened in heaven (4:1).
Heaven itself opened (19:11).
A well or pit opened for the infernal cavalry (9:2).
The earth opens its mouth to swallow the river (12:16).
The seven sealed scroll opened (6:1-8-1).
The scrolls at the great white throne opened (20:12).
The Temple of God opened, showing His covenant (11:19)
The temple of the tent of the testimony opened, exposing the law (15:5).
There are two temple openings. First the temple of God is opened and His covenant is seen (11:19). Again the temple of the tent of the testimony is opened. No covenant is seen, but the law is exposed to view. What at first sight seems to be so similar, is on closer examination, a marked antithesis. Both the covenant and the law are the peculiar possessions of Israel (Rom.9:4). Under the first they have a claim on Yahweh, for He must be true to His engagements. He will bless them as He has promised. Under the law, however, they engaged themselves to serve Him. Their dire failure to keep His commandments must bring down its curse upon them. "Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them."
Thus we see that the two temple openings are both concerned with the priest nation, but with two distinct objects in view. One is a blessing, the other is a curse. One records Yahweh's care to fulfill His covenant with them: the other carries out His curse upon the apostates for the breaking of His holy law. One presents a woman clothed with the symbols of authority and dominion, with the powers of darkness under her feet; the other shows us a false woman supported by the enemies of Messiah, in league with the powers of evil. The first woman is miraculously preserved through the great tribulation; the second is destroyed at its close.
When the "temple of God" is opened the ark of His covenant appears. We are immediately reminded of His covenant with Israel and are confident that, whatever comes, He will be faithful to His compact. He will not rest until He has given them the land promised their fathers. The throne of David must be again established, and Jerusalem must be a praise in the earth. Lightning and voices and thundering and the earthquake and great hail may issue from the temple, but, with the covenant in view, we are sure that His own people will be quite unscathed.
Nor are we disappointed in the chapters which follow. There we see Israel arrayed in the glories which the covenant provides. As the sun she rules the day and her crown is made up of the twelve stars who shall sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes. The moon, the symbol of the powers of darkness, is under her feet.
In the midst of tribulation He helps her. And at the end we find the faithful victorious remnant singing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb (15:3).
How different is the opening of the tabernacle of the testimony! (15:5).
The covenant leaned on God's faithfulness: the testimony, or law, cursed them for their unfaithfulness. Hence, we read that seven angels came out of the temple, having the seven calamities. These were contained in bowls full of the wrath of God....And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from His power, and no one was able to enter into the temple till the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled (16:7,8).
Now the nations never had the law (Rom.2:14). The law speaks only to those under it (Rom.3:19). Where there is no law there is no transgression (Rom.4:15).
Israel alone had the law. The testimony was given only to them. And they alone are held responsible for breaking it.
The offensiveness of sin is much enhanced by law. Sin cannot be excused because of ignorance where the light of the law illuminates. So, while the law gave them great advantage in the knowledge of God's righteousness, it makes them liable to the severest judgment of all mankind if they fall short of its lofty standard.
The bowls complete or exhaust the wrath of God. They are His severest judgments. It is not just that these should fall upon those who had access to the testimony but yet had apostatized?
These considerations, together with the close relation of this "opening" to the preceding one, shows us that both are concerned exclusively with Israel yet one regards the nation from the side of God's faithfulness, the other from the side of their unfaithfulness.
The consequences of this conclusion are very weighty when we observe that Babylon, the object of our present inquiry, is treated of in both of these sections of the Revelation, and nowhere else.
We are forced to conclude, therefore, that Babylon has to do with Israel, and not with the other nations.
No series of judgments occupy our attention when Yahweh remembers His covenant: when the broken law appears, the bowls, filled with the fury of divine wrath, are poured out upon the apostate nation. The breaking of the seals and the blowing of the trumpets are the appropriate symbols for the inauguration of the kingdom, but the priestly function of pouring out heaven's hoarded wrath is accomplished by means of the bowls of the sanctuary. It is more than likely that the bowls are but the localized and intensified trumpet judgments which fall upon those who are not under law. The breaking of law is a transgression and a direct offense to God Himself, so must be reserved for the severer, though restricted judgment of the bowls.
The point of all this for our present purpose lies in the fact that Babylon comes before us only in this division of the Apocalypse. It is seen only in the temple sections which deal with the nation of Israel. Hence it is not to be sought among the other nations. It is not Rome or Protestantism, but Israel. Again, it is but briefly referred to when the covenant is in view (14:8) but is fully elaborated when the tent of the testimony is opened. It is found in that section of the Apocalypse which deals with the destruction of apostate Israel.
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