THE SOULS UNDER THE ALTAR
We now stand upon the highest peak in the great divide of divine prophecy. Behind us lies the shadowy scene of human sin and misgovernment and alienation from God. Some distance ahead we can see smiling plains brightened by the beams of divine mercy, the longed-for millennium. But, before we reach that restful haven we encounter the most terrific storm earth has ever known. Thunder and lightning, blood and fire, heaven and earth, man and Satan, all conspire to wreck and ruin the human race. Directly in the center of the tornado's path are the saints of the Circumcision whose lot will be cast in the time of the end.
Judgment is God's strange work. He always hurries through it and He condescends to explain the motive that prompts Him to it. Just as the storm is the relief of nature's strained elements, so judgment follows the pent-up impulses of mercy. What cannot be cured by kindness, must be corrected by coercion. Love demands that such measures should be swift, severe, and sudden. Grace lingers long. For nearly two millenniums it has swayed its sweet scepter over man. It is like the sun's beneficent beams. Judgment is the lightning flash, which is gone before its thunderous reverberations reach the car.
Redemption is by blood and by power. Israel was sheltered by the sacrificial lamb from the death stroke of Yahweh's messenger and from the Egyptians by the overwhelming waters of the Red Sea. This was but a feeble type of the true Passover Lamb that was slain on Calvary and of the fearful judgments which will engulf the world when Israel's redemption draws nigh.
The Parallel Passages for the Great Affliction
Just as the central object in the great judgment of the past is a lonely cross and a bleeding Victim, so the judgment of the future centers our attention on an altar. The immediate cause of earth's woes is the cry of the martyrs for vengeance. What a mighty contrast between the One Who prayed "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do!" and the cry of those under the altar, calling for judgment on their persecutors! The answer to the cry of Christ has stayed judgment for nearly twenty centuries. The petition of the saints will bring swift vengeance for thirty months.
It is important to understand the character of these judgments. When the kingdom is set up all nations will be summoned before the Son of Man for trial. Their sentence will not be based on their personal sins but upon their attitude toward God's people Israel. When the most terrible persecution visits God's earthly people, the Jew's, it becomes the test of righteousness. Those who succor them are blessed with them. Those who do them no favor are judged accordingly. Those who oppressed and slew them will perish in the previous visitations. The act that provokes the most terrible afflictions that earth shall ever see, is a gigantic outburst of anti-Semitism, but directed especially against those of the nation who are true to Yahweh and His Christ at the time of the end. These are the souls under the altar.
We may rest assured that none of the saints of this day of grace are included in this company. This is not a day for vengeance, but grace. Now a martyr should pray for his enemies, and implore for his persecutors. Then all will be changed. Grace will retire. Justice will unsheath its sword. Israel's saints will call for vengeance.
Perhaps no one seriously considers this scene a literal one. A large cavern is still shown under the site of the ancient altar on Mount Moriah where the blood of the sacrifices was poured. But no one would deem it a great boon to be thrust into such a reeking receptacle as a reward for martyrdom! It would be worse than death itself. It is an undoubted figure of speech. As our understanding of this great crisis depends on a clear grasp of its significance, we shall seek to unfold it fully.
First, we must correct the misleading translations which connect life with the blood. Life, in the original Scriptures, is never connected with the blood, but with the spirit. It is the soul which is associated with the blood. Leviticus 17:11 should read, "For the soul of the flesh, it is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement for the soul." If we connect this with the fact that the blood of the sin-offering was poured out at the bottom of the altar (Lev.4:7,18) we have the key to the whole scene in the Unveiling.
There were seven great festivals every year in Israel. These form a prophetic outline of the nation's spiritual history. We give a list, together with the month and the day on which they were observed, and also suggest the antitype which was its fulfillment.
These festivals and their fulfillment are worthy of a whole volume by themselves, but all we wish to point out at present is the place of the day of atonement. There are two groups of festivals. One starts in the first month and the next six months later. One gives us the judgment of Calvary and the results that followed (1 Cor.5:7; James 1:18); the second is the judgment now before us, and its results.
The Trumpets will immediately bring to mind the seven trumpets which we are about to study. The Tabernacles celebration is a beautiful picture of the kingdom which the trumpets inaugurate. In between we have the day of atonement. It prefigured the great affliction which will fall upon them just before the kingdom comes. It was on the tenth day of the month (Lev.23:27). We have already seen that some in Israel will suffer affliction for ten days (Rev.2:10).
The point we wish to press is this: On the day of atonement the chief duty of an Israelite is to afflict his soul (Lev.23:27). There was to be no joy, no feasting, nothing to please the senses. This is a type of the sufferings and martyrdom of the faithful in the time of their greatest affliction. It is this suffering, at the hands of the alien nations, which precipitates the political judgments of the apocalypse.
Let us clearly grasp the close connection between the soul and the blood. Our Lord poured out His soul unto death (Isa.53:12). Literally, He shed His blood. And this is not a reference to His death, but to the sufferings which led up to His decease. This is one of the earliest figures used in the Bible. The blood of Abel cried to God from the ground (Gen.4:10). No one imagines that it became miraculously articulate. It was the suffering of Abel that appealed to God for vengeance.
The position of the souls shows us that God regards them as sacrificial victims. Every time their enemies murdered one of them for His sake it came up before Him as a reminder of the One great Sacrifice, Who also died at the hands of His enemies. Their blood, consequently, is poured out underneath the altar. In Solomon's temple, and Herod's as well, there was a vast cistern beneath the altar to receive the blood of the victims. But their souls are in the blood, hence we read of "the souls under the altar."
This is one of the most pregnant and impressive figures in the whole range of scripture. Throughout this period Israel is before Him and they are the key to His judicial acts. Are we to view the infliction of wrath upon the nations? First, we are shown the great fact that it comes because they have persecuted and murdered His elect, just as the position of what remains of the nations will be determined in the kingdom by their treatment of His people. We are given no description of the sufferings the saints endure. That is found elsewhere, especially in our Lord's own account of these days. This section of the Unveiling deals rather with the great judgments on the nations, and God's reason for their infliction. Israel's "great affliction" must be avenged! Immediately an awful change sweeps over the very face of nature. Deception, war, famine, and pestilence are very bad, but they have seldom been wholly absent from the earth. It is only their intense severity which makes them so terrible at the time of the end. But even then God is hidden. They may be accounted for by natural causes.
Now, however, God steps forth as the champion of His people. He bares His mighty arm in the face of all nations. The tide of human affairs has turned. Man's day is ended. The Lord's day begins. Now no one any longer dreams that God is dead or has forgotten His creatures. His judgments are in the earth. He shakes it. He trains the artillery of heaven above upon it. He sends a scourge from beneath out of its very bowels.
Great is the day of Yahweh!
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