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F. D. Maurice on the second woe

August 26, 2013

The following is a commentary on the prophecy of the second woe, by F. D. Maurice, from: Fredrick Denison Maurice. Lectures On The Apocalypse. Macmillan And Co. London. (1861) pp. 163-168.

VIII. ‘One woe is past; and, behold, there come two more woes hereafter. And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates. And the four angels were loosed which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.’

F. D. Maurice

Does not this vision resemble that of the first four trumpets, rather than the one we have just been considering? There is an actual river introduced, the Euphrates. A third part of men are said to be killed. Two hundred thousand thousand horsemen are seen, forming a great army. Are we not to look for some physical, rather than some moral calamity, as indicated by the language? I have no doubt that this is the first impression of most readers. I think it can scarcely be the ultimate one.

We shall perceive, I think, that this trumpet succeeds the fifth in natural chronological sequence. The bottomless pit is opened; the swarms of dark superstitions are spread abroad; then comes the removal of a spiritual chain which had hitherto held an evil host in check. But the river Euphrates? At all events, upon any scheme of interpretation, that river must be symbolical; it will not point to events visibly transacted on its banks, or in its neighbourhood. The question therefore is, what does such a symbol most obviously and naturally signify? A Jew would always think of the Euphrates in connexion with Babylon; he would regard it as the river of the Asiatic monarch. He would regard it as spiritually indicating the separation between the two great kingdoms, the Babel kingdom, and the Israelitish kingdom; the kingdom which stood on the ground of self-will; the kingdom which stood on the ground of the God of Righteousness. He would therefore regard the command to loose the angels who are bound on that river Euphrates as the divine decree that the barriers between these kingdoms, so far as the latter was represented in Jerusalem, should exist no longer. The moral basis of the distinction had been destroyed. Jerusalem was a part of the Babel society: may we not say boldly, had become the centre and capital of it?

IX. The year, the day, the hour when this crisis took place, we are told, was fixed. The long pent up evil broke forth. But it had gained no omnipotence. A higher Will determined when it would have been a lie for Jerusalem any longer to pretend that it was a witness for God, when it was right that it should be proclaimed the great witness for the Devil. That year, and day, and hour were not indifferent to the rest of the world. They affected it in ways that it knew not. How, ultimately, we are to be instructed hereafter. How, immediately, we learn from the present passage. I do not find in it any announcement which leads me to doubt that the interpretation of the Euphrates which I have given is the right one. The number of the horses is clearly one that would not have been adopted in any narrative of an actual transaction. It is deliberately chosen to indicate a host which never could have been gathered together on any earthly field; yet which is to carry a wide-spread mysterious desolation. The description of the horses and horsemen is of the same character. The ‘breastplates of fire and of jacinth, and of fire and of brimstone,’ point to no armour that was wrought in earthly forges; the ‘fire, and smoke, and brimstone’ do not come out of the mouths of animals that man can tame.

X. I do not, however, in the least mean to explain away the assertion that ‘men were killed by the fire, and the smoke, and the brimstone that issued out of their mouths.’ I do not understand by this death, spiritual death. Wars and fighting came then as they come now from the lusts in men’s members; the brutality, covetousness, self-glorification, atheism of a land, were then, as they are now, the causes of destruction to hundreds of thousands. The loosing of the angels might be the removal of restraints from powers of moral evil. But if it was that, it was inevitably the removal of hindrances to the murder of men’s bodies. The passage of the Euphrates might be the transgression of the boundary between a kingdom of righteousness and a kingdom of mere power. But when that boundary is taken away, there is no safety for any earthly thing from the violence of power. That singular description in the 19th verse, of the power of these horses, ‘It is in their mouth and in their tails, for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt,’ imports, I apprehend, a thorough union of intellectual with animal force, from which all moral purpose is excluded. There is the mouth which can utter wisdom; there is the tail which strikes and slays. All the wisdom is serpentine: the tail has heads; these obey the lower instincts; to do hurt is their one function. Surely when such creatures are left for a little space to range at large, they will fulfil that function. Woe to the world because of them. Exalted to high places, nothing will be restrained which they have imagined to do.

XI. Six trumpets then have sounded. We ask, what effect did they produce on those who were living under the sound of them? How did they influence the heathen world? How did they influence the Jewish world? The seer makes answer: ‘And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk: neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornications, nor of their thefts.’ So it was in the beginning, so it will be to the end. All outward plagues, all outbursts of moral evils, all apostasies in divine Societies, were and are trumpets of God; those who acknowledge His goodness and truth will tremble and rejoice that He is speaking to them; that He is calling them to repent; that He is preparing the way for a manifestation of Himself. But these trumpets, let them sound as loud and long as they may, seldom stir a man who disbelieves in a living and good God to confess Him. The terror which is in them stupifies rather than quickens. The slumberer is half roused out of his dream; is bewildered; takes a fresh opiate; flies to the gods that neither see, nor hear, nor walk; flies from Him whom he has only recognised in thunderings and lightnings. The sentence is everlastingly true that not the fire, nor the earthquake, nor the blast rending the mountains, but only the still small voice reaches the heart, and compels it to bow. The Jew and the Heathen alike hear the notes of approaching doom, and are unmoved. Both alike shall at last look on Him whom they have pierced, and mourn as one mourneth for her only son.