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HIS EXPOSITION OF THE APOCALYPSE.
No book of Scripture has had so many expositors, at least so many incorrect ones, as the Revelation of St. John. But ought this consideration to deter from further attempts to disclose its mysteries, and from the hope of ever arriving at its true interpretation? Or are Christians at least bound to let the book alone, till its interpretation shall manifestly appear of itself, in the historical events of the christian church? Bengel certainly did not think so, nor could he see it his duty to think so. As his researches had fully satisfied him that this book is a genuine writing of the beloved disciple, so he believed that the particular providence of God, which had watched over all the canonical books in general, had especially watched over this last of them, and had a wise and good design in adding it to their number. But if it was not in vain that the book had been extant for so many centuries, surely it was intended to be studied ; moreover, if we are justifiable in deferring the understanding of prophecy, to the time of its complete fulfilment, then were the Jews justifiable in rejecting the true Messiah. Bengel therefore believed the possibility of arriving at a correct interpretation of this book of prophecy, even before its complete fulfilment; and this he believed so certainly, as to venture to say, that an expositor who concerns himself only with its predicted events, and not also with their dates, is a useless interpreter of any thing predicted in it. For it was not without design that twenty specific periods of time are inserted in this inspired book. (Its Divine Author has connected them with their respective predicted events, and) “ What the Lord has” thus "joined together, let not man put asunder." Bengel thus regarded the explication of the dates or periods not only as practicable, but essentially requisite, quite as much so as that of the subject matter. But he thought it probable, that the development of such periods would become clearer and more satisfactory as time advances; and that at present it was enough “to be able to show, that each past generation had received as much
insight into the Apocalypse as was requisite for its own particular use. Convinced of this, he regarded it as the duty of every fresh expositor to follow up the discoveries possessed by the age he lives in, by carefully concentrating every scattered ray of light already thrown upon it, and waiting in patience and humility, if God peradventure shall grant any further light upon it, even to such an insignificant person as himself. This had been his own way of proceeding. As early as before the year 1724, he had expounded the Apocalypse with the rest of the Greek Testament to his pupils at least six times, and before the end of that year had nearly completed a body of annotations on the New Testament, which he designed to publish under the title of “Gnomon;" though up to that time those of them he had affixed to the Apocalypse were all of a borrowed kind. But just then (to use the words of a contemporary writer respecting him,) “ did the Lord grant such light to spring up unto him, that the portal to the Divine structure of the Apocalypse became
to his view.” He used to speak of this valued vouchsafement as connected with the following remarkable circumstances. When about to prepare a sermon which he was to preach on the first Sunday in Advent, 1724, his thoughts were led to the twentyfirst chapter of the Revelation; and recollecting Potter's view of it, who understands in a mere general sense of architectural enlargement not only the measuring numbers mentioned in the 16th and 17th verses, but even the numbers mentioned in the thirteenth chapter, the question all at once arose in his mind, “ What if Potter be right in the former case, but not in the latter? What if indeed for the kingdom of God in its full and glorious accomplishment, no chronological bounds, according to our notions of time, can be affixed; though such be affixed to the previous great tribulation which directly conducts and breaks open the way to this glorious consummation? If such be the fact, then will not only the forty and two months of the Beast's blasphemy, (ch. xiii, 5, 6,) but likewise the number of his name, six hundred three-score and six, contain a precise and definite period of time; and these two expressions denote one and the same identical period." The idea came so forcibly to his mind, and so occupied it, that he could not continue his meditations upon the text he had chosen for his sermon; which however proved no loss either to himself or to his congregation, so beneficial was now the influence of those great and glorious things which were anticipated as couched in the above mystical periods.
From that moment he set about tracing, at his private leisure, the golden line of scripture chronology, prospective as well as retrospective ; and thus more and more clearly perceived the glorious harmony of the Apocalypse with the history of the world and of the Church. Here also he found the use of a discovery he had made in Greek Testament criticism ; that in Rev. vi. 11, the true reading is simply xpóvov, a time, or period; and not xpovov pekpòv, “ a little season."*
His pleasure was only equalled by the humility with which he entertained the whole disclosure as an unmerited vouchsafement of God. This we shall afterwards see from some extracts of his letters, and at present from the following to J. F. Reuss :
“ Dec. 22, 1724. “ It is impossible for me to withhold from you a disclosure, which, however, I must request you to keep entirely to yourself. By the help of the Lord I have found the number of the Beast. It is six hundred and sixty-six years, from A. D. 1143, to A. D. 1809. This key to the Apocalypse is of importance, and even consoles me with respect to the repeated losses of my infant children; for those who are born in this generation are entering into troublous times. You, also, my dear friend, may well make ready to meet such times; for wisdom will be greatly needed. But · Blessed be He that cometh! (in the name of the Lord.' Ps. cxviii. 26; Luke xiii. 35.)”
“ Jan. 20, 1725. “Some are urging me to publish on the number of the Beast; others dissuade it.† For the sake of the Roman Catholics I am not in a hurry about it. To every thing there is a season; a time to wait, and a time to hasten. It was with great pleasure I lately noticed Luther's remark upon Rev. xiii. 18; for I find that he too interpreted the number of the Beast as denoting 666 years for the period of the papal temporal domination ; only according to him, that period commenced under Hildebrand in A. D. 1013."
Mexpòv, Lectio certissime delenda. Griesb. + Having at length seen it his duty to publish it, he afterwards wrote, “ It does not surprise me that many are so prejudiced against my apocalyptical discoveries. It is something quite strange to us to be obliged to adopt new truths. We directly feel as if upon slippery ground. Writing upon events which are yet to come is quite a different undertaking from that of history. The latter can bring credit; the former must bring obloquy and contempt; for it is proscribed by the world, by the learned, and even by the godly. But truth is of more importance than one's credit or any thing else. We must not be deterred from uttering truth, by any concern as to what people will say of us.
May 11, 1725. “ I am still working at the Apocalypse, and daily see more and more the coherence and harmony of its particulars, so as to suspect more strongly than ever, that if holier persons remain incurious about the signs of the times, it will fall to the lot of some very unworthy individual to discern those signs, and make them known to the world.”
This last declaration may be illustrated by the following, which bespeaks his sincere humility.
“ While I am computing the periods of sacred chronology, I feel astonished beyond measure that God should thus impart light concerning them to such a poor feeble creature as myself; indeed, if I at all stagger about my own computations, it is only when I wonder how it at length comes to pass that I should be the person to unfold such high and holy matters to the world.”
Having arranged to his satisfaction the chief parts of his apocalyptical system, he applied most of his leisure and strength to the completion of his critical works ; though his correspondence with intimate friends, and especially with Marthius, shows that he was still endeavouring after increased knowledge upon apocalyptical subjects.*
He first published upon these subjects in the year 1727, in the sixth volume of Schelhorn's Amanitates literariæ, Art. 3, under the title of “ Discipuli de temporibus Monitum de præjudicio hermeneutico (dies prophet :=365 dies vulgares) accuratiorem Apocalypseos explicationem etiam nunc impediente;” or “A word from an humble disciple upon the prophetic periods; concerning the prejudice, that a prophetic day signifies a natural year ; showing how that prejudice hinders any clearer elucidation of the Apocalypse.” This communication was conveyed in language rather obscure, perhaps intentionally so.
But shortly afterwards he expressed himself more plainly, in a brief German treatise, entitled “Principles for an accurate and unforced exposition of. The Revelation of Jesus Christ.'”+ This work soon drew so much attention, that he was very strongly urged from various quarters to give his views of the Apocalypse more at length; which he set about doing in a treatise consisting of two preliminary essays, which he inserted in the tenth number of a periodical conducted by J. J. Moser, of Frankfort, 1734, and entitled, “ Things new and old concerning the Kingdom of God.”
* See below, ch. xvii, 6, the extracts from his correspondence. + It is reprinted in Beverley’s “Corrected Index of the Times,” 1729.
The first essay was
“On an accurate and unforced System of Interpretation for the Apocalypse:" and the second, “ On the present Continuance of the Third Woe; and the necessity of giving heed to it; evinced chiefly from the twelfth and subsequent chapters of the Apocalypse.” He announced in the preface, that he was preparing for publication a new version and exposition of the Revelation of St. John, from his revised Greek text; but as a considerable time would elapse before he should be able to venture such a work upon public notice, he was willing, in compliance with the wishes of some christian friends, thus to communicate a kind of specimen of it; and should any, who love Christ's appearing, find that these essays cast a single ray of light upon what remains obscure in the prophetic word of God, he hoped they would help him by prayer to derive out of the fulness of the Lamb that was slain, whatever should still appear wanting in the treatise. Meanwhile he trusted that no friends of this mind would give him credit for such impertinent and unprofitable things as had been attributed to him ; much less would entertain a high notion of his performance; he having all along maintained and inquired into nothing but what Scripture had already delivered to his hand; for it was by the simple search of Scripture that he had been led into these subjects quite unexpectedly, nay, almost involuntarily. Finally, he hoped that with fervent prayer and close consideration of the prophetic book itself, they would with all needful discretion try whatever was here laid before them, and convert it to their real benefit."
The treatise first speaks of the high importance of the Apocalypse, as a book which has been mighty through God among christian believers, especially in seasons of general distress and perplexity ; and which will be so again, probably at no very great distance of time. It then takes a brief survey of the whole prophecy; noticing the three first chapters as its introduction, and the other nineteen, as its main substance; the former relating “ that which” the apostle “saw,” and “ that which is;” and the latter, " that which shall be hereafter.”
The fourth and fifth chapters engage our attention upon the Great Author of the prophecy, and upon its general scope; the succeeding ones give the histories of future times; the sixth containing the four first and three last seals. But before the seventh seal, is the preparation, (ch. vii.); the seven angels with seven trumpets, (ch. viii.); the four first, and the three last with the three woes, are announced here, but commence in chapter