Wordsworth on the two witnesses

August 12, 2012

Christopher Wordsworth, (1807-1885) was a nephew of po­et Will­iam Words­worth, and the author of several theological works, including a Bible commentary, and 50 hymns. He was head­mas­ter of Har­row Boys School (1836-1850), and Vi­car at Stan­ford-in-the-Vale, Berk­shire (1850-1869), and Arch­dea­con of West­min­ster, and be­came Bi­shop of Lin­coln in 1868.

Wordsworth identified the two witnesses of Revelation 11 with the Old and New Testaments, in his Lectures on the Apocalypse [London, 1852. pp. 48-61.]. He wrote:

The eleventh chapter of the Apocalypse contains a revelation of the condition of the Church Militant on earth. St. John is there ordered to measure the sacred precincts with a Reed like a Rod.

This direction, it may be observed, is specially appropriate to the Evangelist, St. John, who survived all the Apostles, completed the building of the Church, and being the beloved Disciple of the Incarnate Word, Who is the Alpha and Omega of all God’s Revelations, closed the Canon of the Holy Scripture. And, it will be remembered that the word “Canon” is derived from the Hebrew Kaneh, the term which is used by Ezekiel in his fortieth and forty-second chapter, and which is the same as the Greek and Latin word kanna, or Reed, and the English cane; and that it signifies a measuring reed, and is therefore well applied to the Divine Reed of Faith, that is, to the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, which are the supreme and sufficient Rule of Christian Doctrine.

Also, the Hebrew measure called the Reed, was six cubits, or a man’s stature, whence it is called in the Apocalypse (xxi. 15. 17) the measure of a man; and in this respect likewise is a beautiful emblem of Scripture as commensurate with Man in all his faculties, needs, desires, and destiny.

This Reed is said to be like unto a Rod. What Rod? it may be asked. The Rod, we reply, mentioned in other places of the Apocalypse, — the Rod of iron with which Christ, and, by His power, all faithful Christians, are there represented as breaking in pieces the potter’s vessels of earthly error — the straight Rod of Holy Scripture, which is strong and unbending as iron, and cannot be broken. Lest therefore, from the mention of a Reed, any one should imagine that what St. John had in his hand was brittle, or shaken by the wind, like a Reed, it is said to be like a Rod; and this Rod is a Rod of iron.

There is a reference to the peculiar character of this Rod of iron in the Apocalyptic words, — He will rule the Nations with a Rod of iron. The word for he will rule is ποιμαινει, that is, He will guide as a Shepherd does his flock: and so this rod becomes a pastoral crook. Hence we see the true character of Holy Scripture. It is a Reed for measuring, a Rod of iron for strength and correction, and a shepherd’s Staff for guidance, retrieval, and support.

This measuring Reed St. John takes in his hand, and metes out the Sanctuary; showing thereby that the limits of the Faith of the Church are traced by the Reed of Scripture; and that “whatever is not read in Scripture, nor can be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man as an Article of Faith.”

10. Next, St. John is informed that the outer part of it and the Holy City will be trodden by the Gentiles for a certain time. Then Almighty God, having spoken of the measuring Reed, and of the admeasurement of the Church, immediately proceeds to speak of Two Witnesses. — I will give power to My Two Witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These two Witnesses, He proceeds to say, are the two Olive trees, and the two Candlesticks, standing before the God of the earth.

It will now be asked, What are these Two Witnesses? And why are they here represented as Olive Trees emptying oil into the golden Candlesticks; and what connexion have they with the measuring Reed, and with the mensuration of the Church? How is this apparently sudden transition to be accounted for?

In reply to this inquiry, we are reminded by the ancient Interpreters that the word here rendered Candlestick is the same as that employed in the Greek Version of the twenty-fifth chapter of Exodus, where God gives to Moses directions for the making of the Golden Candlestick, according to the pattern shown to him in the Mount, with seven branches and seven lights, or lamps, to be fed with oil, and to stand in the Holy Place, which was the figure of the Church on Earth, and to illuminate it with its rays.

The same word is used also by the Prophet Zechariah, in the fourth chapter, in his Vision of the seven-branched golden Candlestick, fed by seven pipes, with oil flowing down from two Olive Trees, the one on the right hand of the Candlestick, and the other on the left.

Thus the Law and the Prophets prepared imagery for the Apocalypse.

From the Apocalypse itself we learn that the Candlestick, as dispensing light, represents the Church, which diffuses the beams of Divine Truth.

The seven Candlesticks (says St. John) are the seven Churches. And, in the same passage, our Blessed Lord, the great Head of the Church, is displayed to us, arrayed in a long vesture, that is, in His sacerdotal attire, walking in the midst of the Golden Candlesticks, that is, observing the state of the Churches, whether they burn brightly with the pure and luminous flame of true doctrine, or are dimmed with errors and corruptions. A Candlestick, therefore, represents a Church in the discharge of its office of shedding forth divine light. And how and whence is this light received? Let St. John inform us.

I will give power to My Two Witnesses, says Almighty God, and they shall prophesy (or preach). These are the Olive Trees, and the two Candlesticks standing before the God of the Earth: an expression which again connects this Vision with that of Zechariah, where we read, — What be these two olive branches which through the two golden pipes empty the golden oil out of themselves. Then said the Angel, These are the two anointed ones that stand before the Lord of the whole earth.

And St. John says, — The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy; intimating thereby that the word prophecy is used in the sense of Evangelical Preaching.

What, now, are the two Witnesses, and two Olive Trees?

Some Interpreters, you are aware, suppose them to be two Persons. Enoch and Elias are specified by some. Others adduce other names.

But the Prophecy aims higher, and reaches further than the person and existence of any child of man. It is in dignity, divine; and in duration and extent, universal.

The ancient Church, expounding the Apocalypse, remembered the words of God to Moses concerning the seven-branched Golden Candlestick of the Tabernacle; she recollected the vision of Zechariah; she had before her eyes that prophet’s seven-branched Candlestick, fed with oil by pipes from the two Olive Trees; she recollected, also, that St. John himself has given a key to the meaning of the symbolical Candlesticks; and she knew full well that, in the words of Isaiah, she, herself, being the Church of God, must look for light to the Law and to the Testimony; and that, if she speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in her; she knew, also, in the language of St. Paul, that she hath received this ministry not to preach herself but Christ Jesus the Lord, and that God, Who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined into her heart, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, so that the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ, Who is the image of God, should shine throughout the world.

The Church, we say, considering these things, as she looked on the two Golden Candlesticks fed by the two Olive Trees, saw herself illumined by the Two Testaments. The Scriptures of the Two Testaments are her Olive Trees, planted in the House of the Lord, ever flourishing with fresh leaves for the healing of the nations, ever bearing the emblems of peace, ever pouring forth the oil of gladness, and ministering the food of light. And in the form and office of the Two Candlesticks she saw her own character and ministry, under the Two dispensations, — the Law and the Gospel, — as being therein the divinely-constituted Guardian, Keeper, and Interpreter of the Word of God.

Like them, the Church is to be of pure gold; like them, she is to be firmly set on a solid basis in the presence of God; like them, she is to be visible to all; like them, to extend her branches far and wide, and to diffuse her light, and irradiate the world. Her thoughts must all be upward. Her light must aspire to heaven. Her feet are on the rock; her heart is among the stars.

Let us also observe that, like the seven-branched Golden Candlestick, the Church has no light in herself. She can do nothing without the Olive Trees. If the golden channels, which connect her bowls with their branches, are choked, then she will burn dimly; if they are broken, she is eclipsed, and the Tabernacle of the World is dark.

We now perceive that the transition in the Apocalypse, from the measuring Reed to the Two Witnesses and Two Olive Trees, far from being abrupt, is very natural and easy.

The Two Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation; they constitute the Rule or Canon of Scripture; they are the measuring Reed of the Church. That measuring Reed is put by the Angel of the Covenant, Christ Himself, into the hand of St. John; for St. John, the last-surviving Apostle, was specially appointed by Christ to authenticate and consummate the Canon of Holy Scripture, and thus to fix the faith of the Church. The reed measures the Sanctuary, and so exhibits to us the sufficiency of Holy Scripture.

11. Yet, further, in the connexion of the Olive Trees and the Golden Candlesticks we behold a true picture of the relation of the Church to Holy Scripture, and of Holy Scripture to the Church.

This, as you well know, is, and long has been, a much-controverted matter; and perhaps no better, no more vivid, representation can be given of it, than in the Candlesticks fed by the Olive Trees.

The Church of Rome, you are aware, would persuade us that we owe the Scriptures to herself, and that if we would believe in their Inspiration, we must acknowledge her authority. She even affirms that Scripture derives its validity from her sanction. It is Scripture, she says, because she has canonized it. So that, according to her theory, the Word of God owes its existence, as such, to the Church of Rome.

What is this, but to invert the right order of tilings? It is not to draw light into the Candlestick of the Church from the divine Olives, but it is to attempt to light up the living Olive Trees of Scripture from the dead Candlestick.

Again: the Church of Rome will not allow the divine oil of Scripture to flow freshly, freely, and fully; no, she clogs up the pipes, and thickens the liquid stream of pure doctrine with the coarse and clotted admixture of corrupt traditions. What is this, but to mar the Candlesticks, to make the wicks fungous, and the light dim, and the air noisome, and the sky gloomy, and the nations blind; and to incur the Wrath of Him Who walketh in the midst of the Golden Candlesticks, and to tempt Him to remove her from her place?

My beloved brethren, let us pray for her, and let us watch for ourselves. Almighty God, let us be sure, does enlighten His Church by the holy oil of His Spirit poured from the Olive Trees of the Two Testaments. He is the only source of light: He is the Father of Lights. In His light we see light. Let us not imagine, then, that we can illuminate ourselves; much less that we can illuminate His Word! The things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.

He has also set the Golden Candlestick of His Church Catholic in the World, to be the recipient of His light, to keep it ever burning, and to convey and diffuse it far and wide. We receive Scripture from Him through the Church; and what has not passed through its sacred Pipes, even from the beginning, — what has not come to us by the golden tubes of the faithful testimony of the Church, — we do not acknowledge as Scripture. But the Church has no light of her own. If God should withdraw the supply, or if she obstructs the channel, her light wanes and dies. But He is graciously pleased to pour forth a perennial stream of the oil of spiritual truth and grace in His Written Word; and the Son of Man, the Great High Priest, is ever walking in the midst of His Church, warning her to keep her lights burning; and we are sure that the light so given, though it may be dimmed, will never die.

12. Lastly, the irreverent and contemptuous treatment which the Word of God will receive, and which, alas! it is now receiving, from the World, is pourtrayed by St. John in this divine prophecy; and the final triumph of that Word is revealed also. Let us, therefore, be on our guard; let us be made wise thereby.

The Two Witnesses prophesy in sackcloth. The Two Testaments are assailed by Satan, and impugned by men, as the One Testament was by the type of Antichrist, Antiochus Epiphanes, and as Both were by Diocletian. Their warnings may be despised; their commands may be broken; they may seem as dead; their carcases may be trodden under foot (as the Apocalypse prophesies) in the streets of the great City, the figure of a rebel Church. They that dwell on the earth may rejoice over them, because the Two Witnesses tormented them. The Kingdoms of this World may imagine that the Word of God slumbers; that all its precepts are obsolete; its lightnings extinct, and all its thunders spent. Nations may enact Codes, and frame Constitutions, which treat that Word as dead. Men may busy themselves in endeavouring to prove that the Two Witnesses are not inspired; they may proudly dream that they have reduced them to silence by scoffing sneers and sceptical sophistry. Churches may withhold the Word of God, and prohibit its circulation, and stifle or adulterate its testimony by human traditions and legendary fables. But the Scripture cannot he broken; the Two Witnesses are immortal.

They may appear to be dead, but, — as St. John declares in the Apocalypse, — they still live and breathe; they will rise again; the Spirit of God will animate them; they will stand again on their feet, and they who see them will fear. They will be raised in triumph to heaven, like Elias, on a chariot of fire. All flesh is grass: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the Word of our God shall stand for ever. Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but Christ’s Word shall not pass away.