The Song Of The Harpers by The Glassy Sea
Chapter from “Memories Of Patmos”
(A devotional meditation on the book of Revelations)
by John MacDuff (1818-1895)
I saw before me what seemed to be a crystal sea mixed with fire. And on it stood all the people who had been victorious over the beast and his statue and the number representing his name. They were all holding harps that God had given them. And they were singing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and marvellous are your actions,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
O King of the nations. (Revelation 15:2-3)
The seven angels who were holding the bowls of the seven plagues came from the Temple, clothed in spotless white linen with gold belts across their chests. (Revelation 15:6)
Then I heard a mighty voice shouting from the Temple to the seven angels, “Now go your ways and empty out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.” (Revelation 16:1)
We have, in previous chapters, taken a rapid glance at two out of the three great parallel series of visions in the Book of Revelation—those of the Seals and those of the Trumpets. One other group of figures, that of the Vials, still remains, previous to the grand final disclosures regarding the Celestial City and the Church of the glorified. We found the two former were preceded by magnificent introductory visions—the adoration of the slain Lamb, and the Angel with the golden censer standing by the golden altar. So also is it in the case of the Vials, in which there was to be a new symbolic outpouring of divine judgment on one especially of the portentous monsters delineated in chapter 13— “the Beast and his image.”
The true Church being, moreover, basely counterfeited in this hybrid foe, which conjoined the horns of the Lamb with the mouth of the dragon, could not fail to tremble for her own safety, and to stand in need of a special upholding word of comfort in the prospect of retribution. That preparatory vision of consolation is given in the words we are now to consider. Before the seven golden-belted angels come forth from the opened temple, bearing in their hands the cups or bowls of wrath to be poured on an apostate church and an apostate world, John has his attention directed to another “sign in heaven.” It is a sea, calm as glass, mingled with fire. A crowd of victors are seen on its shores, uniting with harp and voice in a song of lofty adoration.
There would seem to be little doubt as to the real allusion in the suggestive imagery. Standing, indeed, now (as the spectator himself describes in chapter 14), “on the sands of the sea,” looking across the Aegean Sea—its calm waters transmuted into molten gold—the island-home of the Apostle-prisoner and its surroundings may have possibly added power and reality to the figure.
But who can question that it had its grand original in the memories of another sea-shore—other minglings of fire—and other harps of triumph? Who can fail, in this new apocalyptic representation, to call to remembrance that ever-illustrious scene in early Jewish story—the proudest in all the old Hebrew annals—when the Israelites, ranged on the sands of Asia with the Red Sea between them and their old house of bondage, sang their song of victory—Miriam and her sisters answering with timbrels, as they made the shores ring with the refrain, “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider has He thrown into the sea”?
Nor is it the name given, “The Song of Moses”—which alone is suggestive of the allusion. The glassy sea was “mingled with fire.” Have we not here, also, the counterpart in that opening drama of the Exodus—the pillar of fire giving its glorious light to Israel, but flashing vengeance on their Egyptian pursuers? You may remember the exceptional appointment on that night of miracle, with reference to this fiery column—it “removed and went behind the Hebrews.” At other times their pioneer and precursor, it now remained in their rear; so that as the Israelites, rank by rank, reached the opposite shore, they saw its lurid light reflected in the waters. The opposite side of the same pillar formed a murky cloud and darkness to the Egyptians; or, if it emitted light, it was only the fitful gleams and coruscations of the forked lightning—the arrows of God—to dazzle and perplex and terrify.
After the world’s long night of peril, the symbolic Church of ‘just men made perfect’—God’s glorified Israel—having left forever behind them the land of their oppressors, stand safe on the heavenly shore. Every billow of tribulation is hushed—all is changed into a calm, reflecting the glory of the Everlasting Hills, and of the Sun of Righteousness. How vivid the contrast between that glassy, waveless sea—without a disturbing element—and the apostate Church on earth spoken of in chapter14 as “seated on many waters”—fretted with tempest, tossed on a troubled ocean-sea which cannot rest! Blessed and glorious emblem of everlasting tranquillity—these celestial harpers celebrating the downfall of all evil, and recognizing, in the survey of the past; the love, wisdom, and faithfulness of God’s every dealing—this their joyful testimony and experience on these blissful shores, “We went through fire and through water, but You brought us out into a wealthy place.”
We may add, in a word, yet one other feature of resemblance. It is the place which the vision occupies in the Apocalypse, in connection with the pouring out of the vials; recalling vividly, also, the vial-plagues of Egypt, the pouring forth of which preceded Israel’s emancipation. For although we have spoken of these beautiful words as a prologue or introduction to the seven plagues which follow, perhaps from the literal rendering of one of the phrases we may also assign to them this additional significance, that they are not only anticipatory, but are rather sung all through the course of the vial-outpouring. The golden-belted angels pause, so to speak, to listen in silence to their mandate; but after the former have issued from the temple, the song continues. It is not a brief introductory solo merely—a solitary paean before the conflict; but rather like martial music mingling in the roll of battle, or like words of heart-cheer and sympathy borne ever and always, amid the surging of the tempest, to the ears of the perishing crew. If so, the song has this additional interesting characteristic, that it is being sung now—that as the judgment-angels are abroad on their mission, the ear of faith can catch up its strains. The song of the perfected Church we shall come to hereafter; the present is that of the partially completed and completing ranks of the glorified.
It is the song sung on the Heavenly Mount while the battle is still raging in the plain beneath. Let us then, for a little, ungird the wilderness-armor and hearken to the music of the harps of God. On His own Sabbath, it may be, the day and hour of solemn truce, with the arms of conflict piled on the silent sands, let us forget the Egypt plagues behind, and the perils of the desert before, and listen with rapt reverence to “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.”
There are various interesting views we may take of this blended song. First, we may regard it as the Song of the two Dispensations—that of the Old and the New—the mighty multitude of redeemed gathered in under both, meeting under their great representative heads—a united Church. The glorious company of apostles, the goodly fellowship of prophets, and the noble army of martyrs, are assembled on the celestial shores to sing the song of their common deliverance—to mingle their combined yet diverse experiences, and proclaim these for the encouragement of the drooping and faint-hearted, who are still struggling in the conflict, or buffeting the billows.
How vast and varied are these experiences! Each harper has his own tale to utter and his own song to sing. There are the patriarchal harps swept by the hand of Abel and Noah, Abraham and Joseph; telling of purposes of covenant love proclaimed amid the withered bowers of Eden, or written in the rainbow of heaven that spanned the receding waters of the flood, or recalling mercies that were showered around the tent of the Pilgrim of Canaan, and the Captive in the Egyptian dungeon. There are the prophetic harps, from Moses to Malachi, rehearsing those glowing utterances which evoked of old their tuneful melodies. There is Isaiah, resuming the very strain of his undying parable of consolation, “Comfort, comfort my people.” There is Hezekiah with his balm-words for the troubled and terror-stricken, “God is our refuge and strength, a present help in trouble,” There is David and Daniel, with their older memories of heroic faith and calm reliance, which led to ultimate deliverance and victory. There is the harp of the Simeons and Annas, who, in their day and generation, stood on the threshold of a new era of time, celebrating still the praises of the great “Consolation of Israel,” for whom they had long waited, and waited not in vain. There is the Baptist, in the presence of the “True Light,” uttering louder than ever his old proclamation, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
One after another of the apostolic band has his own hallowed story to relate—reminiscences of touching tenderness, and motives and encouragements to brave and stern endurance. John has more glorious visions of endearing fellowship with his great Lord than all the sublime picturings of Patmos. Paul has to tell how the things that happened unto him “have fallen out rather to the furtherance of the Gospel.” Peter, in loud accents which know no faltering, can now exclaim, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” We can listen to the holy women of Judea, and Galilee who tracked on earth the footsteps of Incarnate Mercy, joining with the Miriams and the Deborahs of the olden dispensation in abundantly uttering the memory of His great goodness, and talking of His righteousness. There are the Marys and the Elizabeths, rejoicing in God their Savior. There is the weeping penitent of Gennesaret with nothing now but the tear of love in her eyes, sweeping her harp with bolder hand because she had been forgiven much. There is the woman of Sychar and Mary of Magdala, and the sisters of Bethany, and the other holy watchers by the tomb of buried love, now echoing and prolonging the song through everlasting ages which they were the first to raise, “The Lord is risen indeed.”
There are the martyred multitudes under Pagan Rome, and the faithful and heroic confessors under Papal Rome, who are described, in this vision of the crowned harpers, as having “gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over the number of his name.” But we are lost in the attempt to catch up or follow these lofty harmonies. It is the blending, in one magnificent cadence, of all the voices of the fast-gathering Church triumphant—from Adam, re-tuning the broken harp of Paradise lost, to those who are at this very hour entering the spirit-land; all of every rank and of every age—from the true Israelite wearing the monarch’s crown, to the true Israelite whose earthly birthright was rags and penury—from the aged Melchizedecs and Methuselahs and Elis, to the little children who sang their hosannahs in the temple—the representatives of ten thousand thousand whose infant tongues, stilled on earth, have been early tuned to the immortal song.
Oh! whatever be the jarring notes of conflicting ages and conflicting sects here, all is harmony yonder. “Those who are delivered from the noise of archers,” now, in the fellowship of unmarred and unbroken communion, rehearse to one another, harp answering to harp, and soul to soul, “the righteous acts of the Lord.” It is the realization of the longed-for unity of God’s people—the interchange of the patriarchal and the apostolic—the Jewish and the Christian—the Song of Moses blending in sweet accord with the Song of the Lamb; and the words of sublime liturgy, so often belied on earth, become the noble and truthful liturgy of Heaven, “The Church throughout all the world does acknowledge You!”
II. Another view we may take of this blended ascription is, that which is most obvious, to regard it as the song of PROVIDENCE and the song of GRACE. “The Song of Moses”—the song of Providence. “The Song of the Lamb”—the song of Grace, or Redemption. The anthem itself is an antiphonal strain, sung in alternate parts; and its subject-matter, as given in verses 3, 4, would seem to justify the twofold division. It was God’s wondrous providential “works,” in the miraculous plagues of Egypt and the passage of the Red Sea, which formed the special theme of the olden Song of Moses. The Song of the Lamb, again—that of the New Testament Church—celebrated rather the wondrous “ways” of God—His justice, His truth, His dreadful holiness, as manifested in the plan of redemption. And, therefore, if the strains of the former befittingly be this, “Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty,” no less appropriate and beautiful are those of the latter, “Just and true are all Your ways, O King of the ages; who shall not fear You, and glorify Your name? For You only are holy.”
First, then, let us hear these harpers sing the Song of PROVIDENCE, “the Song of Moses, the servant of God.” They delight, in other words, to sing a song similar to that which Moses sang on the shores of the Red Sea—the leading characteristic of which is the recognition and adoration of God’s sovereignty. It is worthy of special note, how strikingly, in all their references to the exodus, the Hebrew psalmists and prophets love to bring into bold prominence this grand feature of the personal agency, foreknowledge, and power of Jehovah. “They went through the flood on foot; then did we rejoice in Him.” “He divided the sea, and caused them to pass through, and He made the waters to stand as a heap. In the daytime, also, He led them with a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire.” “You rode upon Your horses and Your chariots of salvation. You walked through the sea with Your horses—through the heap of great waters.”
And these are but the echoes of the original song itself. “Your right hand, O God, has become glorious in power. Your right hand, O Lord, has dashed in pieces the enemy. With the blast of Your nostrils the waters were gathered together; the floods stood upright as a heap. The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil. You blew with Your wind; the sea covered them, they sank as lead in the mighty waters . . . The Lord shall reign forever and ever!” Oh! blessed assurance for the Church of God in the midst of all tribulations, and one we have found so often repeated in this closing Book of the sacred Canon, that there is a personal will and a personal God enthroned behind and above these apparently conflicting elements! The God of the olden pillar-cloud is in the pillar-cloud still. Man proposes, but God disposes.
It is for us, meanwhile, patiently to wait the development of His plans; to take on trust these strains from the harpers which we cannot understand until we ourselves join their ranks. Every evolution in the great program is His, who presides alike over the counsels of His Church and the destinies of the nations. It is He who now strengthens and appoints the angels of judgment. It is His own mighty voice which gives the commission, “Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth.” When that judicial errand was being accomplished, the subsequent confession of one of these ministers of vengeance would doubtless be that of all Chapter from “Memories Of Patmos”
(A devotional meditation on the book of Revelations)
It is JEHOVAH, the Lord God Almighty, the Just, and the True, and the Holy—who has given them their mandates. With unswerving loyalty, forth they go, panoplied in “pure and white linen, having their chests girded with golden sashes.”
And when their task is done—when the last vial has been outpoured, and the Great Voice again comes out of the Temple of Heaven, saying, “It is done”—when they return to their thrones to surrender their trust, and lay the emptied vials at the feet of their great Lord—what is the next entry of the recording spectator? “After these things I heard a voice of much people in Heaven, saying, Alleluia! Salvation, and glory, and honor, and power unto the Lord our God: for true and righteous are His judgments . . . And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!”
Let us catch up the lofty echo of this Song of Moses—the Song of Providence; the song sung—yes, and now being sung, on the shores of glory! The Providence which sits enthroned over the Church and the world presides over our individual destinies. Often there may be profound mysteries in the Divine dealings, “deep may call to deep.” We may at times lose the footsteps of a God of love, and be led in our bewilderment to exclaim, “Your way is in the sea, and Your path in the deep waters, and Your judgments are not known.” But there is a day coming when the rectitude of His dealings and doings will be vindicated—when the floods which now lift up their waves and make a mighty noise shall be stilled into a glassy calm, mirroring nothing but the red, fire-like glory of Justice, and Mercy, and Love; and when, not with the blare of the trumpets of earthly warfare, but on the tuneful chords of Heaven’s own sweetest instrument, we shall sing with the harpers on the glassy sea—”The Song of Moses, the Servant of God.”
The Second theme of the twofold song is “The Song of THE LAMB”—the Song of Grace and of Redemption. This is a louder, loftier, sublimer strain. We have met it before, more than once, in the previous figures, so that we have the less need to dwell on it here. In the connection in which it stands in the present passage, we are forcibly reminded of one of the most impressive incidents in the life of our Incarnate Redeemer. Moses, the author of the Song of Providence, in company with another illustrious fellow-harper from the glassy sea, came down to an earthly mount to witness the Transfiguration of Him whose day they had both seen afar off, and were glad. It was not, however, the theme of Providence which then engrossed their thoughts, nor the Song of Providence which thrilled on their lips. “They appeared in glory, and spoke of His death, which He would accomplish at Jerusalem.”
As if they would thereby proclaim, that the theme of Redemption, the Song of the Lamb, is the sublime topic which fixes the contemplation—tasks the immortal energies of the redeemed above—the blessed bond of union linking together the varying dispensations—the legal, the prophetical, the Gospel—the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven. All other themes pale before it. All other works and designs of Providence constellate around the Cross of Calvary, as the planets around a central sun. No other theme, no other song, has any glory, by reason of this glory which excels—Christ is all and in all! Not only of Him and through Him, but “to Him are all things.” Glorious indeed is the Song of Creation—the song which the psalmist puts into the lips of the starry heavens, as these spangled, glittering minstrels of the skies declare the glory of God and show forth His handiwork—day unto day uttering speech, and night unto night showing knowledge.
Glorious, too, was that Song of Moses on the Red Sea shores. No greater or more signal earthly deliverance was ever celebrated in poetry or music. It stands out by itself with peerless grandeur, in annals sacred and profane. But, after all, what a feeble type of that deliverance which is being now sung and celebrated by the heavenly harpers!—a deliverance from the bondage of condemnation and death!—as we look across the sea of Divine wrath, and behold our sins, like the hosts of Pharaoh, sunk into its depths! Oh! sing unto the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous things! His right hand and His holy arm have gotten Him the victory. Thanks, eternal thanks be unto God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
If the befitting utterance of Creation and Providence be, “Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty,” Redemption, as it takes its stand by the Cross, and beholds the meeting in blissful harmony of all the attributes of Jehovah—Truth with Mercy, and Righteousness with Peace—has this song, too, peculiarly its own, “Just and true are all Your ways, O King of the ages! Who shall not fear You, and glorify Your name? for You only are holy.”
Let us sing that twofold blended song now, that we may sing it forever. It is continually waxing louder. Well-known voices missed on earth, add to the sublime harpings and melodies of the skies. The host passing through the Red Sea of earthly trial is, age by age, year by year, week by week, diminishing; the shores of glory are crowding with ever-augmented numbers. Meanwhile, let the girded angels of judgment go forth on their mission—and whether it be to pour the contents of their incense-bowls on a desolated world—on rivers, and fountains, and sea, and lights of heaven—amid predicted voices and thunderings, lightnings and earthquake—the crash of falling cities and the wild paroxysms of affrighted nature; or whether it be to carry these vials to individual homes and hearths—we shall listen to the voice of Him who has given the mandate, “Go your ways;” we shall hearken to the calm lullaby stealing down from the harpers on the sea of glass, as they proclaim, amid all convulsions and all changes, the sway alike of a God of Providence and Grace, and exhort us to sing with them, even now, what will form the theme and anthem of eternity, “The Song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the LAMB!”