I think that there are few verses of the Bible that give one a more sudden and startling thrill than the verse at the beginning of the viiith chapter of the Revelation. And when he had opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. The very simplicity of the words, the homely note of specified time, is in itself deeply impressive. But further, it gives the dim sense of some awful and unseen preparation going forward, a period allowed in which those that stood by, august and majestic as they were, should collect their courage, should make themselves ready with bated breath for some dire pageant. Up to that moment the vision had followed hard on the opening of each seal. Upon the opening of the first, had resounded a peal of thunder, and the voice of the first beast had called the awestruck eyes and the failing heart to look upon the sight: Come and see! Then the white horse with the crowned conqueror had ridden joyfully forth. At the opening of the second seal, had sprung forth the red horse, and the rider with the great sword. When the third was opened, the black horse had gone forth, the rider bearing the balances; and then had followed the strange and naive charge by the unknown voice, which gives one so strong a sense that the vision was being faithfully recorded rather than originated, the voice that quoted a price for the grain of wheat and barley, and directed the protection of the vineyard and olive-yard. This homely reference to the simple food of earth keeps the mind intent upon the actual realities and needs of life in the midst of these bewildering sights. Then at the fourth opening, the pale horse, bestridden by Death, went mournfully abroad. At the fifth seal, the crowded souls beneath the altar cry out for restlessness; they are clothed in white robes, and bidden to be patient for a while. Then, at the sixth seal, falls the earthquake, the confusion of nature, the dismay of men, before the terror of the anger of God; and the very words the wrath of the Lamb, have a marvellous significance; the wrath of the Most Merciful, the wrath of one whose very symbol is that of a blithe and meek innocence. Then the earth is guarded from harm, and the faithful are sealed; and in words of the sublimest pathos, the end of pain and sorrow is proclaimed, and the promise that the redeemed shall be fed and led forth by fountains of living waters. And then, at the very moment of calm and peace, the seventh seal is opened,–and nothing follows! the very angels of heaven seem to stand with closed eyes, compressed lips, and beating heart, waiting for what shall be.
And then at last the visions come crowding before the gaze again–the seven trumpets are sounded, the bitter, burning stars fall, the locusts swarm out from the smoking pit, and death and woe begin their work; till at last the book is delivered to the prophet, and his heart is filled with the sweetness of the truth.
I have no desire to trace the precise significance of these things. I do not wish that these tapestries of wrought mysteries should be suspended upon the walls of history. I do not think that they can be so suspended; nor have I the least hope that these strange sights, so full both of brightness and of horror, should ever be seen by mortal eye. But that a human soul should have lost itself in these august dreams, that the book of visions should have been thus strangely guarded through the ages, and at last, clothed in the sweet cadences of our English tongue, should be read in our ears, till the words are soaked through and through with rich wonder and tender associations–that is, I think, a very wonderful and divine thing. The lives of all men that have an inner eye for beauty are full of such mysteries, and surely there is no one, of those that strive to pierce below the dark experiences of life, who is not aware, as he reckons back the days of his life, of hours when the seals of the book have been opened. It has been so, I know, in my own life. Sometimes, at the rending of the seal, a gracious thing has gone forth, bearing victory and prosperity. Sometimes a dark figure has ridden away, changing the very face of the earth for a season. Sometimes a thunder of dismay has followed, or a vision of sweet peace and comfort; and sometimes one has assuredly known that a seal has been broken, to be followed by a silence in heaven and earth.
And thus these solemn and mournful visions retain a great hold over the mind; it is, with myself, partly the childish associations of wonder and delight. One recurred so eagerly to the book, because, instead of mere thought and argument, earthly events, wars and dynasties, here was a gallery of mysterious pictures, things seen out of the body, scenes of bright colour and monstrous forms, enacted on the stage of heaven. That is entrancing still; but beyond and above these strange forms and pictured fancies, I now discern a deeper mystery of thought; not pure and abstract thought, flashes of insight, comforting grace, kindled desires, but rather that more complex thought that, through a perception of strange forms, a waving robe of scarlet, a pavement bright with jewels, a burning star, a bird of sombre plumage, a dark grove, breathes a subtle insight, like a strain of unearthly music, interpreting the hopes and fears of the heart by haunted glimpses and obscure signs. I do not know in what shadowy region of the soul these things draw near, but it is in a region which is distinct and apart, a region where the dreaming mind projects upon the dark its dimly-woven visions; a region where it is not wise to wander too eagerly and carelessly, but into which one may look warily and intently at seasons, standing upon the dizzy edge of time, and gazing out beyond the flaming ramparts of the world.