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The Revelation -- Which Interpretation?
By Graham Pearce



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1 . The summary at the beginning of chapter 4 (pages 45-47) was originally based on the Ist edition of "Apocalypse for Everyman" by Bro. A. D. Norris, and has been slightly revised so as to conform to the 2nd edition.

2. In the Ist edition the view was maintained that the armies in heaven with Christ in Revelation chapter 19 are almost certainly angels, not saints. In the 2nd edition this matter is dealt with extensively and the writer's opinion is more in favour of including the saints (though this hardly fits with his view that the judgement seat is not until chapter 20).

3. An extra feature of the 2nd edition is the inclusion of criticism of the continuous historical interpretation, based on notes provided by Bro. J. B. Norris. These cover the Seals, Trumpets, Beasts, and Vials.

4. The type of criticism is illustrated with the first Seal. In the historical interpretation the white horse is taken as a symbol of the peaceful and prosperous condition of the Roman Empire between AD 98 and AD 180 -- in contrast with the 2nd Seal red horse whose rider was given power to take peace from the earth. Bro. J. B. Norris refers to various wars and rebellions during this period, and he concludes "It is hardly true that peace. . . prevailed to a great extent during the First Seal period". This view is to be contrasted with Gibbon's broad assessment of the period, despite its various wars and victories. Elliott summarises various quotations from Gibbon in the following paragraph (Horae Apocalypticae, part 1, chapter 1):

"He represents it (and his representations are well confirmed by the original histories remaining to us) as a 'golden age' of prosperity, union, civil liberty,

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and good government; a period 'unstained with civil blood' (like the white of the first Apocalyptic horse, in contrast with the red of the second), and 'undisturbed by revolution'; a period remarkable, both at its commencement and at its close, for very wonderful and almost uniform triumphs in war, whereby the glory of the empire was illustrated, and its limits extended; and of which the middle period, though not without occasional wars (always successful) on the frontiers, was generally a time of profound and happy peace. In short, he thus sums up his view of it: -- "If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus" (Elliott gives full references to Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' for all the expressions in the above paragraph).

Seeing that Gibbon had no interest in religion and the Revelation, what has been quoted is a remarkable support for the historical interpretation.

5. Bro. J. B. Norris rejects the view that the features of the 2nd Seal are particularly appropriate to the next period, AD 183-211 approximately, a period which was characterised by assassination of the several emperors. He says a red horse signifies war, and this could apply to almost any period. But a further symbol is introduced into the 2nd Seal; the weapon carried by the rider was, in the Greek, a 'machira'. This is a dagger or dirk, such as would be used for assassination; it was not the 'rhomphaia', the usual sword used in war. So, far from being inappropriate, the details are very appropriate to the period.

6. The assassinations continued with succeeding emperors, but now more general ills were apparent in the Roman Empire -- famine, plague and much distress, expressed by the black and pale horses, the rider of the latter being Death and Hades. After the periods of these two horses, there was a revival in the Roman Empire, and we come to the 5th Seal, the souls under the altar crying for vengeance, fitting in with the persecution under Diocletian AD 303-311. Bro. J. B. Norris tries to minimise the persecution under Diocletian; also saying there had been various similar persecutions before; and inferring there is no good reason to fix the Seal on the Diocletian persecution. But his comments do not alter the historical facts concerning the intensity of the Diocletian persecution. Here is the detail from a paragraph from Elliott:

"On the 23rd of February the mission of armed force to destroy the great church of Nicomedia, and burn the sacred books on 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: . . . Churches to be demolished, the Holy Scriptures burnt, church property confiscated, the holders of religious assemblies put to death, and Christians generally put outside the protection of the law -- such were the heads of the first edict. Then

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followed others, imposing penalties of imprisonment, tortures and death, first against the Christian bishops, presbyters, and other ecclesiastics, 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 fury of the populace readily, for the most part, seconded the declared intention of the emperor. And thus, with the partial exception of the western provinces, under the rule of the Caesar Constantius Chlorus, (I say partial, for Spain and Britain too furnished many victims), 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, not long since and perhaps still extant, recorded their vain boast of having extirpated Christianity. For church-service the Christians now met in caves and catacombs. Their only way of visibly and publically witnessing for Christ was by martyrdom."

Gibbon and Mosheim support this description. Gibbon begins his account with the words, "Notwithstanding this seeming security, an attentive observer might discern some symptoms that threatened the church with a more violent persecution than any which she had yet endured" (ch. XVI). In the light of these descriptions the language of the 5th Seal is very appropriate -- souls of them that were slain for the word of God crying for vengeance; vengeance that soon came by the hand of Constantine.

7. One can feel pleased that Bro. Norris has included the criticisms of the historical interpretation. If nothing more powerful can be brought forward, there is nothing to fear. Further, these criticisms become insignificant when one takes a broad view of the six Seals and the corresponding Roman history. It is inescapable that, like painting a picture with a few broad strokes of the brush, these six Seals describe in broad terms the history of the Roman empire from AD 100 to Constantine -- a period of peace and prosperity in which the gospel could be extensively preached (the rider and his bow); followed by decline and calamity; then a revival of the empire in which the christians benefitted, only to come under severe persecution, and then to be dramatically associated with the great revolution carried out by Constantine (as depicted in Revelation chapter 12).

8. Criticisms of the Trumpets are similar to those of the Seals. For instance, it is pointed out that the Goths attacked south-cast Europe as well as western Europe. But this in no way invalidates the historical interpretation, which is concerned with western Europe. The effect of the first Trumpets, taken to represent the barbarian invasions of western Europe, are presented in the 4th Trumpet as bringing an eclipse of a third of the empire -- the western third. The prophecy here is not concerned with the eastern part of the empire. It may be noted that Bro. J. B. Norris admits the general appropriateness of the first three Trumpet details to the Goths, Vandals, and Huns, and their behaviour.

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As to his criticism of the three-fold division of the empire being the Latin west, the Hellenised east, and the Hellenic east, justification for this is given in chapter 2 page 23; also there is evidence in Elliott.

Repeating the point made regarding the Seals; in the sweep of history, the first four Trumpets undoubtedly sketch what one will find in any historical atlas displaying the various barbarian invasions of the West at this time. "At this time" is an important phrase. The Trumpet events are in the right place historically -- the end of the 4th century and into the 5th century. Is it all coincidence, unintended by God, that the events of the Trumpets follow on correctly from the times of the Seals, and the Trumpets are in the right sequence relative to the historical events they portray?

9. The 5th Trumpet starts a new series of events, indicated by calling it "a woe", the first of three woes. Appropriately, in the historical interpretation, the scene is changed to the eastern empire. Bro. Norris makes various comments as to how he sees things; the reader is advised to read the careful and full account given by Bro. Thomas in Eureka, as the best response to what Bro. Norris says.

One matter not fully dealt with by Bro. Thomas is the 'scorpions' of Revelation 9:10. There is a criticism both by Brethren J. B. Norris and A. D. Norris pointing out that 'Greek fire' (for a description see page 29) was a successful weapon of the Romans against the Saracens, and it is inferred that it is quite wrong to interpret verse 10 as Greek fire used by the Saracens against the Romans and their other enemies -- in other words, the interpretation does not fit history. It is agreed that the Romans used Greek fire to repel the Saracen attacks on Constantinople. But this misses the point of verse 10. The characteristic of the Saracens was the new way they used Greek fire, as Gibbon relates in his chapter 52. They developed 'scorpions' -- catapults (see page 30) that hurled vessels containing the ignited Greek fire. This gave a far greater range and accuracy in the use of this destructive material. It was a distinct military advance. This is what the text in Revelation 9:4 is about: "They had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails". Again, how accurate is the prophetic record to the historical interpretation; how unimportant the criticism.

10. Finally, under the Trumpets there is a criticism directed against the interpretation of verses 17-19 of this chapter 9: the use of gunpowder by the Turks. Bro. J. B. Norris substantially answers his own criticism. He admits cannon and gunpowder were the decisive weapon of the Turks when they conquered Constantinople. It is agreed, as he says, that some of the cannon were so tremendous that they could not be drawn by horses; but this does not mean that the Turks did not also have horsedrawn cannon in use. The illustration on page 30 shows a mortar hurling Greek fire by the use of gunpowder, and this could be as destructive as heavy cannon. Similar equipment could be drawn by horses.

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As we have said about the Seals, so with the Trumpets: they are brief, broad, sketches of history leading to major changes -- under the first four Trumpets to the eclipse of the western empire; and under the 5th and 6th Trumpets to the overthrow of the eastern empire. In the taking of Constantinople, the capital of the eastern empire, gunpowder and cannon were descisive. How fitting therefore that the Bible text concentrates on this matter of gunpowder as the chief element of the Trumpet (vv.17-19). Is the correspondence of prophecy and the history of this time just chance, and this Trumpet belongs to the future?

11. In leaving the Seals and the Trumpets, we would remind the reader that the historical interpretation of them has been acceptable to a great number of competent men over several centuries. Joseph Mede's Apocalyptic Scheme (1632) details this historical interpretation quite clearly. (His chart is shown at the beginning of volume 3 of Eureka.) From then onwards through many writers including Isaac Newton, Daubuz, Bickersteth, to Elliott's Horae Apocalypticae (1844) this understanding has been maintained. And in our own community, we have had various capable students over a century or more who were satisfied with the interpretation. Some readers may recall the words of Bro. Islip Collyer in his Book Vox Dei, chapter 16:

"It may be stated quite definitely that at least since the days of Joseph Mede no serious and capable exponent of the book of Revelation has felt the slightest doubt as to the application of the fifth and sixth trumpets. There may have been other expositions put forward by egotists who at all costs have aimed at originality. . ."

12. Referring now to the Vials, there is a similar style of criticism of the historical interpretation which applies them to the events of the last and the present centuries. The criticisms have little impact on the way the broad sweep of events correspond with the symbols. This has been set out in chapter 7. The break-up of the old Order in western Europe under the first five vials; the drying up of the Turkish power over the last century and the early part of the 20th century to allow the restoration of Israel in part to their land, as preparing the WAY for the saints to enter the latter-day Babylon; the socialist impulse that has swept the world, as represented by the frog-like spirits, preparing the nations to band together against Christ: this is too grand and clear a sweep of prophecy fulfilled in history for us to be much concerned with the comments of Bro. Norris. The broad fit should be apparent to all. There is little point, for instance, in Bro. Norris telling us that the decline of the Turkish power could be traced earlier than 1820, or that Turkey still exists. This does not invalidate a 'drying up' over the past century, and the removal of the Turk from Palestine by General Allenby in 1917; allowing the development of the nation of Israel in their own land ready for those great events in the land when Christ returns, as set out in the Prophets.

The criticism about the 1260 time period is answered in chapter 6, pages 68- 71.