And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire, and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb.—Rev. Xv. 2, 3.
THIS vision owes its form partly to the circumstances of the seer and partly to an Old Testament reference. As to the former, John's exile in Patmos occasions unusually numerous allusions to the sea, in this book of the Revelation. The voice of the glorified Redeemer, for instance, reminds him of the thunder of the waves on the rocky coast. The mysterious Beast rises from its abysses, which might hide so much that was foul and strange. Babylon sinks in ruin, like a millstone tossed by an angel's hand into the sea. And when the vision of the new heavens and the new earth dawns, one of its characteristics is, " there shall be no more sea," the emblem of estrangement, of rebellious power, of futile effort.
Similarly in this vision, the glassy sea shot with fire is soo
but a photograph of what was often seen from John's rocky islet on some still morning when the sunrise " came blushing o'er the sea," or on some evening when the wind dropped, and the flaming west dyed the watery plain with a fading splendour.
Then, as to the other element which colours the representation here, we cannot fail to see that there is an allusion to the Song of Miriam, sung on the banks of the Red Sea, when Pharaoh and his host were buried in the mighty waters. There, as here, the singers stand on the safe shore ; there, as here, they hymn a destruction which opened the way to emancipation and joy. The allusion is underlined, as it were, in the declaration that the Song which here is sung is "the Song of Moses and of the Lamb."
Now, of course, we cannot use highly imaginative representations, like that of my text, as if they were dogmatic statements, and we have to be very careful in deducing any inferences from such figurative language as this. But still, making all allowance for that, we may gather lessons that may be of use to us. We have here brought before us the victorious choir; their place by the glassy sea, and their triumphant song.
I. The Victorious Choir, j The description of these jubilant singers is very striking. "They that had gotten the victory over," or, as the Original is presented in the Revised Version, "they that had come victorious from "—and it would have been even better to have read out of than from " the beast, and his image and his mark, and the number of his name." They were conquerors who had fought their way out of a certain tyrannical dominion, and had emerged into freedom. Now, I shall not spend time in the discussions which have been very fascinating to many people, and do not seem to me to have been of much use to anybody, as to whether this "Beast" represents a person, and if so whether it is Nero, or whether it is some unknown and still future individual embodiment of certain tendencies. Never mind about that. The important question is, what made the "beast" a beast?
Well—bestiality, to begin with; which, being turned into modern English, is sensuous animalism. Man is poised in the midst, between two orders of being—if I may use the word " order " in reference to one of them —and he may rise or he may sink. He may go up to the level of Divinity j he may come down to the level of bestiality. And if he does not do the one, he will do the other. You have only to look round you to-day to see the animal beneath a great deal of the veneer of civilization and refinement in modern society. The unblushing sensuality, or if I may not use that word, I may at least say sensuousness, of many modern ideals in art, in literature, in daily life—what is it but the beast in the man coming to be predominant? How much that is unblushingly practised, and even defended and applauded, is really giving a free hand to the Sensuous, which ought never to get a free hand, letting the mutineers come up on deck and take command of helm and sextant, flinging the reins on the neck of the steeds, which do noble work when they are well held in, but set the heavens on fire, like Phaethon's team, when they are allowed their way. There are other aspects of what make the Beast a beast. I put them all in two words, God-forgetting selfishness and God-defying opposition of will against Christ. If you take the context you will find, amidst a great deal that is very difficult to understand, this one thing emphasized, that the Beast and the Lamb divide the world between them, and that whoever is not on the side of the one is on the side of the other. Under which King? Who is your Lord and Master 1 You young people especially, are you going to serve the flesh, or are you going to put your heel on the neck of the brute, and live for the God whom you may bring to dwell within you? Which are you doing?
The next point is that the dominion of this " Beast," which is shorthand for all the lower and animal tendencies, is an established fact, out of which a man has to fight his way. "They have gotten the victory out of the Beast, and the number of his name." There is nothing in this world worth the having and the being, which is not the result of a deadly earnest fight. If you make up your minds, or if without ever having had the courage to make them up, you let yourselves drift into the position of taking up the line of least resistance and doing what is easiest, then your fate is settled, and down you will go. I do not mean in regard to outward things. You may prosper in them, and win wealth or fame if your aims go in that direction, but in regard to the true aims of life, unless you are prepared to fight, you will be a poor creature whilst you live, and a wreck altogether when you come to die. They " got the victory out of the beast; " plucked it from the very jaws of the brute; and that is what we have to do. As the good old-fashioned hymn says :—
Now we must fight if we would reign;
Increaes our courage, Lord.
But there is one more thing to note about these victorious choristers. How did they get the victory? There is only one answer to that question—because they joined themselves to the Victor-Lamb. It is a strange paradox that runs through this Book of the Revelation, that, as I have already suggested, the Lamb is pitted against the Beast; and with entire destruction of the verisimilitude of the metaphor, the Lamb is made to be a Warrior-Lamb, Who "goes forth"—strange as it sounds—" conquering and to conquer." That covers a deep truth. Christ cures the animalism of humanity by His sacrifice on the Cross, and by His meekness and gentleness. And if you are ever to overcome your worse self, and to have any share in that jubilant song of triumph at the last, I believe in my heart of hearts that the only way by which you can do so is by trusting yourselves to Him Who " teaches our hands to war and our fingers to fight."
When He said to us, "be of good cheer; I have overcome the world," He implied that "this is the victory that"—for us—" overcometh the world, even our faith," by which we unite ourselves with Him, participating by derivation in His victorious power, and, therefore, are "more than conquerors through Him that loved us." They have "gotten the victory from the Beast." Let me beseech you to fight under the same Leader and with the same weapons as they did, or the Beast will gain dominion over you.
And now turn to the second point—
II. The Glassy Sea By Which The Victors Stood.
Of course, the allusion to the story in Exodus, and the propriety of the picture, make it necessary that we should suppose that they who stand " on the sea of glass" are not represented as if they had their feet planted on its calm surface, but that " on " here means "above," "by the side of," on the safe shore, with the glassy sea stretching in front of them. Now this sea of glass, by which these victors stood, has appeared already in this book, where it is represented as lying placid and even before the Divine Throne. I suppose that both there and in our text, it represents by a very natural metaphor the aggregate of the Divine dealings and self
manifestations to men ; on whose calm surface, if I may so say, as on a great, shining mirror, the throne of God and He who sits upon it, are in some degree reflected: One of the Psalms has the same idea, in a somewhat different form, when it says, "Thy way, 0 God, is in the sea, and Thy path in the deep waters, and Thy footsteps are not known." Another Psalm echoes the thought when it says, "Thy judgments are a mighty deep." And one of the Apostles winds up his discussion about the mysteries of the kingdom of God with, " Oh! the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God: How unsearchable are His judgments." So I suppose we may consider that it is in accordance with the analogy of Scripture, as well as with the natural propriety of the symbolism, if we see, in this sea of glass mingled with fire, an emblem of the whole dealings of God with man, through which are ever and anon shot, as it-were, fiery streaks, like the scarlet threads in Venetian glass.
This noble symbol carries with it some great and precious thoughts. That sea is transparent. It is deep, but it is not dark by reason of mud, but by reason of its clear translucent depth; and when vision fails, it is not because of obscuration there, but of our weak sight. I have seen a like sea, without a speck of mire or dirt and with no weed on its margin, rising and falling on marble cliffs that it had polished into discovery of their golden veins. Such is this " glassy sea," pure and clean. "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." We know their motives and purposes; they come from Love, they tend towards man's perfecting. And if, at any time, it is difficult to hold fast by that belief as to their origin because of their complexity, or difficult to see how they tend to that issue, still, as does the psalm to which I have already referred, we have to link together the two conceptions : " Thy way is in the sea " and " Thy way is in the sanctuary."
Again, the sea of glass was calm and stable. To us, tossing upon it, it often looks tempestuous enough. To them, looking down from above, it is smoothed into a watery plain, a glassy mirror. That crystal sea was shot with fire. The judgments of God necessarily are sometimes punitive, retributive, destructive, but they that are in sympathy with the Lamb, and have shaken off the tyranny of the Beast, in the measure in which they have done so, even here and now see in them, and understand, "the loving-kindness of the Lord" even when He smites.
And so I come to the last point—
III. The Song Of This Victorious Choir.
I do not attempt to expound it. I simply wish to draw attention to its central thought. These conquering choristers stand, like Miriam and her maiden band with their timbrels, on the safe shore, and as they look out on the calm waters that have buried Pharaoh and his hosts, they lift up their song of praise, because of the destructive judgments that have led to liberty. The gist of their song is this, that God's dealings with man— the transparent crystal and the fiery streaks—alike are the outcome of His righteous love, and alike are intended to lead men to know and worship Him. Even when there come "terrible things in righteousness" to the world, or to us individually, if we are wedded to Jesus Christ they will yield to us here, and far more clearly and continuously hereafter, occasions for thankfulness, for praise, for clear perception of the Divine character, and for more lowly worship at His feet. "When the wicked perish there is shouting," says Proverbs. And when God, as is sometimes the case, comes forth and smites into dust some hoary institution that has been the source of miseries to mankind, then men ought to rejoice, and, in spite of sympathy and compassion, ought to feel that God has done a mighty thing in mercy, though mercy had an envelope of wrath. There is nothing of the weak sentimentality which characterizes some people's theories, in the New Testament conception of God. He is the God of love, but His very love must sometimes nerve His arm to strike, and sharpen His spear to slay..
Let us remember that that is true about our individual lives. Let us take our place where the choristers stand by the glassy sea, in so far as we can do so here and now. Let us recognize habitually, that even the retributive and destructive and afflictive acts of God come forth from His righteousness and for our good, and we shall be less astonished when the bitter draught comes to our lips, and be able to say, even whilst we take it: "The cup which my Father hath given me ; shall I not drink it?" And afterwards we shall stand like the harpers by the glassy sea, and praise Him for our sorrows, our losses, our pains; and for all the way by which the Lord our God hath led us.
So let us acquiesce in present imperfect knowledge, and not be in too great a hurry to pronounce, with our fallible judgment, and our partial information as to a half-finished process, what is in accordance with, and what is contrary to, the Divine nature. Abraham had the boldness to say: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right ?"—which did not mean " I will acquiesce in His acts, though I cannot see their righteousness, because He did them;" but did mean: "Men have a standard of right and wrong to which they expect that the Divine acts will conform." That is true, no doubt, but it is a principle that has to be very cautiously applied, for the reasons just stated. We see but a small segment of the circle here, and our judgment of it had best be suspended till we see the perfect round. We shall be most modest and wise if we "judge nothing before the time." But we can confidently accept Christ's promise: "What thou knowest not now, thou shalt know hereafter." Since we may hope to join the victorious choristers by the sea of glass, let us not contradict our future song of praise by our present murmurings and complaints.
Brethren, this vision shows us, too, the path of victory. Take Jesus Christ for your captain, and in His strength fight, and He will bring you at last to the eternal shore; and as the unsetting sun rises, it will touch with golden beams the calm ocean, beneath which the oppressors lie buried for ever. If we let the Beast write his name on our foreheads, we shall sink with him in the mighty waters. If we take the Lamb first for our sacrifice, and then for our King, He will break the yoke of bondage from off our necks, and bring us at last to the safe beach, and put a new song into our mouths, of praise to Him Who has gotten us the victory "over the Beast : ;: and the number of his name."