It’s been a long time since I’ve touched this. Herewith, I continue posting Christina Rossetti’s devotional commentary on the Apocalypse, The Face of the Deep, published in London in 1892 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. This was, so far as is known, also the first verse-by-verse commentary on the entire Apocalypse by a woman. I recommend the first entries (Introduction, 1.1-2, 1.3, 1.4-6). I place this in the category “Poetry” rather than “Biblical Studies” because this work is rife with the poetry of Christina Rossetti, who is acknowledged today, finally, deservedly, as one of the finest poets of the English language in all ages.
7. Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him. Even so, Amen.
Once to Nicodemus our Lord said : “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen: and ye receive not our witness.” So now St. John, on the threshold of his revelation, cries to us: “Behold”—being about to make us see with his eyes and hear with his ears, if only we will understand with hearts akin to his own.
Dare we then aspire to become like St. John? Wherefore not, when we are bidden and invited to become like Christ?
Our likeness to St. John (if by God’s grace we assume any vestige of such glory) must include faith and love, but need not involve more than an elementary degree of knowledge.
Humility and prayer will guard us against culpable misunderstanding, but may not for the present confer understanding. I once heard a teacher instruct his class that Joshua when he bade the sun stand still, himself rightly conceived the astronomical position, whilst he spoke according to the opinion of his hearers. Wherefore suppose this? Faith alone, not knowledge, seems essential to the miracle.
Similarly in our present study faith is required of us, and faith may consist with either ignorance or knowledge. We are bound to believe and obey: we may live, and haply we may die, before being called upon to recognize hidden meanings.
St. John himself, illuminated as he was beyond mortal wont, becomes our pattern of a gracious partial ignorance when he records how the Lord said not of him, “He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” Certain disciples thinking to understand, misinterpreted: he himself abiding by the simple letter of God’s word, awaited what the day should bring forth.
“Behold, He cometh with clouds.”— “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet Him.” Who shall go out? Nay, who shall tarry within? “The virgins love Thee”; and the wise virgins at length after patient watching and waiting go out. The foolish virgins too go out; but alas! they are not of those who shall go in to the marriage. They that are in the graves go out, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. The sea casts up her dead. North and south, east and west, the winds, the ends of heaven, all give back, all bring back, the dead. A very great army.
“And every eye shall see Him.”—All impelled in one direction, all looking in one direction. Even a very small crowd doing the same thing at the same instant has a thrilling, awful power; as once when I saw the chorus of a numerous orchestra turn over their music-sheets at the same moment, it brought before me the Day of Judgment.
“He cometh with clouds.”— “Clouds and darkness are round about Him; righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His throne.” But we know not whether at that supreme moment any one will even notice clouds, or angels, or subordinate terrors. Now is our time to notice and avail ourselves of them, if we aim at living by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
Each common cloud in this our cloudy climate may serve to remind us of the cloud of the Ascension, and of the clouds of the second Advent. Also of that great cloud of witnesses who already compass us about, who one day will hear our doom pronounced; who perhaps will then for the moment become as nothing to us when we stand face to face with Christ our Judge: “At the brightness of His presence His clouds removed.”
“Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.” Good also are clouds when they recall our thoughts to Christ; yea, good is a horror of great darkness, if thereby He vouchsafe us a revelation.
O all-sufficing Lord Jesus, our fear and our hope, nourish in us the fear Thou requirest, and the hope Thou acceptest; that by fear we may become bold in obedience, and by hope indomitable in perseverance, lest we fall and perish at Thy presence.
Ah, Lord, we all have pierced Thee: wilt Thou be
Wroth with us all to slay us all?
Nay, Lord, be this thing far from Thee and me :
By whom should we arise, for we are small,
By whom if not by Thee?
Lord, if of us who pierced Thee Thou spare one,
Spare yet one more to love Thy face,
And yet another of poor souls undone,
Another, and another—God of grace,
Let mercy overrun.
We all have pierced Him, and wicked Christians far more cruelly than did those who of old knew not what they did. Yet to those men who handled the nails and the spear (to any of them who repented not) seems to appertain one special pang of recognition, their pang and not another’s—a pang not awaiting any who even from the left hand can answer, Lord, when saw we Thee?
No retributive agony for offences against our neighbour may equal the sight of Christ Himself recognized too late. Yet may it be but the extreme instance of what we incur daily, hourly, by such offences, whether of commission, omission, malign influence. What will it be to meet again those whom we would have the mountains fall upon, and the hills cover? souls whose blood cries out against us? some twofold more child of hell of our own making? What will it be to depart with our victims into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels? O my God, what would it be by some miracle of Thy mercy ourselves to stand safe while we behold one whom we have corrupted depart into everlasting punishment?
David when he beheld his own misdeed visited upon his people “spake unto the Lord . . . and said, Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly ; but these sheep, what have they done? let Thine hand, I pray Thee, be against me . . .”—David, a man after God’s own heart, saintly in his penitence. Long before him Moses, by the grace of God, had freely identified himself for love’s sake with his self-destroyed people: “Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written.” And once again, centuries afterward, St. Paul, rapt out of himself by love, deliberately put on record: “I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren.” For the spiritual world also has had its giants, mighty men that were of old, men of renown.
Now we have been created small, and not great, and further, we may have stunted and dwarfed ourselves by sin; and if so (at least for the present) it may both seem and be simply hopeless for us to aim at heights or at depths. Still, however ignominious our level, the person we have wronged has a present, urgent, instant claim upon us, and if we can do nothing else by way of reparation, we can pray for him. “Yes, verily, and by God’s help so I will.”
O Lord God, Almighty and All-merciful, cleanse those whom I have defiled, heal those whom I have wounded, strengthen those whom I have enfeebled, set right those whom I have misled, recall to Thyself those whom I have alienated from Thee. I pray Thee, save these sinners, save all sinners, and amongst all sinners save me the sinner. For Jesus’ sake, the Friend of sinners. Amen.
“All kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him”—or, as in the Revised Version: “All the tribes of the earth shall mourn over Him.” The two translations suggest different trains of thought.
The first seems to set before us those whose resurrection bodies being still of the earth earthy, their resurrection cannot but be the resurrection of damnation. “Kindreds of the earth,” and by their own free will wedded to earth, the union abides indissoluble even while earth and all that is therein are being burnt up because the Day of the Lord is come. “There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” They whose whole lives have clamoured to God to depart from them must abide by the awful sentence, “Depart from Me.”
But the second reading has a different sound, rather as if all souls alike should go forth and weep bitterly,—alike, yet how unlike. Saints mourning because they have never mourned enough over the sins which slew their Beloved, because they have never loved enough the Beloved of their souls. “They shall look upon Me Whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.”
Yet not to picture saints as mourning when the days of mourning are ended, I set aside my own thought, and dwell upon it only so far as to realize vividly the unworthiness of even the most worthy, and (if such grace be granted me) to nurse tenderness and contrition in my own hard heart.
Lord, now give us tears, yea, always tears so long as they shall be to Thy glory; tears acceptable to Thee, stored in Thy bottle; tears which Thou Thyself wilt wipe away.
Thy lovely saints do bring Thee love,
Incense and joy and gold ;
Fair star with star, fair dove with dove,
Beloved by Thee of old.
I, Master, neither star nor dove,
Have brought Thee sins and tears;
Yet I too bring a little love
Amid my flaws and fears.
A trembling love that faints and fails
Yet still is love of Thee,
A wondering love that hopes and hails
Thy boundless love of me ;
Love kindling faith and pure desire,
Love following on to bliss,
A spark, O Jesus, from Thy fire,
A drop from Thine abyss.
“Even so, Amen.”— “Amen” alone closed the doxology (ver. 6), but here where judgment is the theme, St. John doubles his assent. A lesson of adhesion to the revealed Will of God, be that Will what it may: a foreshowing of the perfected will and mind of all saints at the separating right and left of the final division: and example of the conformity we must now pray and strive after: even so, Amen.
8. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.
“I am Alpha and Omega.”—Thus well nigh at the opening of these mysterious Revelations, we find in this title and instance of symbolical language accomodated to human apprehension; for any literal acceptation of the phrase seems obviously and utterly inadmissible. God condescends to teach us somewhat we can learn, and in a way by which we are capable of learning it. So, doubtless, either literally or figuratively, throughout the entire Book.
Such a consideration encourages us, I think, to pursue our study of the Apocalypse, ignorant as we may be. Bring we patience and prayer to our quest, and assuredly we shall not be sent empty away. The Father of lights may still withhold from us knowledge, but He will not deny us wisdom.
“Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law.”
If a letter of the alphabet may be defined as a unit of language, then under this title “Alpha and Omega” we may adore God as the sole original Existence, the Unit of Existence whence are derived all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues; yea, all other existences whatsoever.
This title derived from human language seems to call especially upon “men confabulant” for grateful homage. As said of old the wise son of Sirach: “The Lord hath given me a tongue for my reward, and I will praise Him therewith.” Or as the sweet Psalmist of Israel declared: “I will sing and give praise with the best member that I have.”
Alas! that men often pervert their choicest gifts to their soul’s dire destruction. For St. James bears witness against the tongue: “The tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell . . . The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”
O Lord Jesus Christ, Wisdom and Word of God, dwell in our hearts, I beseech Thee, by Thy most Holy Spirit, that out of the abundance of our hearts our mouths may speak Thy praise. Amen.
“The beginning and the ending.”— “The beginning” absolutely and in every sense, antecedent to all, cause of all, origin of all.
Not so “the ending”; for by God’s merciful Will whilst all creatures have a commencement, many abide exempt from any end, being constituted to share His own eternity. Yet in a different sense God is “the Ending” of all creation, inasmuch as all permanent and good creatures converge to His Beatific Presence, firnd their true unalterable level at His right hand, rejoice in His joy, and rest in His rest for ever and ever. In Him all, out of Him none, attain to fulness of life immortal. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”
Contrariwise, obstinate sinners who finally and of set purpose approach not unto Him by attraction of love, dash themselves against Him in endless rebellion of hatred; as miry waves upheaved over and over again from the troubled deep might shatter themselves over and over again against the Rock of Ages.
“Fear ye not me? saith the Lord: will ye not tremble at My presence, which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it: and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it?”
“If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there.”
O Lord Almighty, Who hast formed us weak,
With us whom Thou hast formed deal fatherly ;
Be found of us whom Thou hast deigned to seek.
Be found that we the more may seek for Thee ;
Lord, speak and grant us ears to hear Thee speak ;
Lord, come to us and grant us eyes to see ;
Lord, make us meek, for Thou Thyself art meek ;
Lord, Thou art Love, fill us with charity.
O Thou the Life of living and of dead,
Who givest more the more Thyself hast given,
Suffice us as Thy saints Thou hast sufficed ;
That beautified, replenished, comforted,
Still gazing off from earth and up at heaven
We may pursue Thy steps, Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ said: “I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear. Fear Him, which after He hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear Him”—words to awaken fear : may it be a godly fear.
Meanwhile in these words of dread lies a great encouragement. The power to destroy us is limited to the Almighty, and He is the All-merciful.
“O God, Who declarest Thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity; mercifully grant unto us such a measure of Thy grace, that we, running the way of Thy commandments, may obtain Thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of Thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
“The Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before Me, and be thou perfect.”— “When the Almighty scattered kings for their sake: then were they as white as snow in Salmon.”
Because our God is Almighty, therefore can He demand of us purity and perfection, for by aid of His preventing grace we can respond to His demand. Thanks be to Him, through Jesus Christ our Righteousness.
How light a heart befits one whose burden the Almighty deigns to carry with him. “Why art thou so heavy, O my soul: and why art thou so disquieted within me? Oh, put they trust in God.”