Sermons on the Apocalypse, the Holy Name, and the Proverbs
by John Mason Neale.
London: J.T. Hayes, 1871.
SERMON IV. SEVEN.
"And unto the angel of the Church in Sardis write: These things saith He that hath the seven spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy 'works, that thou hast a name, that thou livest, and art dead."--REV. iii. i.
I THINK of all fearful passages in Holy Scripture, the epistles to the Churches of Sardis and Laodicea are the most fearful. And that, more especially if taken in connection with a Religious House. And of the two, notwithstanding the few names in Sardis which had not defiled their garments, it seems to me that that Epistle is the more dreadful. For of Laodicea, though we know how wretchedly she deceived herself, thinking herself rich when she was most poor, having need of nothing when she was most miserable, yet «ve have no reason to believe that she deceived other Churches. Sardis did, it is plain, from this very verse; she was looked on as a model Church; no doubt prided herself, and was envied by others, for her spiritual endowments, gift of tongues, and the like. Imagine, then, how like a thunderbolt it must have fallen upon them, when they came together on the Sunday that followed the receipt of this epistle, and the Bishop read the words of Him that cannot be deceived and cannot err, for His own most terrible condemnation and theirs: "Thou hast a name that Thou livest, and art dead."
But, before I go on to speak of that: first, of the LORD'S title. You must all have noticed how the number seven recurs and recurs in the Apocalypse. The seven candlesticks, the seven lamps of fire, the seven seals; seven horns and eyes of the Lamb; seven angels and seven trumpets; seven seals; seven thunders; seven heads of the dragon: seven crowns on those heads; seven heads of the Wild Beast; seven mountains; seven kings; sevenfold ascription of praise: seven invitations to Come; and the division of the whole book into seven visions.
Now, then, what is the reason of the especial holiness of the number seven? And if it takes me longer to speak about than I at first intended, that cannot be a matter of small importance to us which runs, like a golden thread, through the whole texture of Scripture.
What especially does seven mean? It means, and it is, the sign of GOD'S covenant relation to man, and especially to His Church, Jewish or Gentile.
From the beginning it was so. The seventh day hallowed; circumcision, its initiating sacrament; after seven days, the dove let loose. Seven is the number of sacrifice; that of the offering, in consequence of the covenant; Hezekiah, in reconciling the temple, brings seven bullocks, seven rams, seven lambs, seven he-goats; Job's friends are commanded to offer seven bullocks and seven rams; Balaam bids Balak build seven altars, and offer on each a bullock and a ram. It is the number of purification and consecration: in the sin-offering for ignorance, the Priest is to sprinkle the blood of the bullock seven times Defore the rail; in the consecration of Aaron the altar was sprinkled seven times with oil; the cleansed leper was sprinkled seven times with blood and water, and on the seventh day thereafter shaved his head and was clean; on the great day of atonement, the mercy-seat was sprinkled seven times. It is the number of forgiveness; " I say not unto thee, until seven times, but until seventy times seven: If he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him." Seven is the number of every grace and blessing flowing to Israel out of the covenant; and by this very number, therefore, shown to be in consequence of it. The Priests compass Jericho seven days, and on the seventh day seven times: " The LORD shall cause thine enemies to be smitten: They shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways:" "So that the barren hath borne seven:" " A just man falleth seven times a day, and riseth again." So it is the number of punishment to those that rebel against the covenant. "If ye walk contrary unto Me, and will not hearken unto Me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins:" "Shall seven years of famine come into thy land?" It is the number of punishment of such as injure the people in it. "Whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold:" "If Cain be avenged sevenfold, truely Lamech seventy and sevenfold." "For the blasphemy wherewith our neighbours have blasphemed Thee, reward Thou them, O LORD, sevenfold into their bosom." " Seven days were fulfilled, after that the LORD had smitten the river." And again, it is the number of punishment taken as a salutary discipline, and so re-adjusting, so to speak, the covenant between GOD and the sinner. "If the thief be found, he shall restore sevenfold." So the wise man says: "My son, sow not upon the furrows of unrighteousness, and thou shalt not reap them sevenfold." And so again: "Such things (that is, earthly suffering,) happen unto all flesh, and that is sevenfold more upon sinners." All festivals, again the signs of the covenant between GOD and man, are ordered by seven; or else by seven multiplied by seven. So, not to mention the Sabbath again, so it is with the Queen of Jewish Feasts, the Passover,--the Feast of Weeks, of Tabernacles,--the Sabbatical Year, and the Jubilee.
Now further: when GOD is at work among the Gentiles outside the covenant: while yet it is clearly to appear that it is for the sake of Israel that He does so work, then comes in the number seven again. Thus it is the number of the years of plenty and famine: in sign that these were sent not so much for Egypt's sake as for Israel's. Naaman is to wash in Jordan seven times, that he may confess that there is no GOD in all the earth, but in Israel. Seven times pass over Nebuchadnezzar, that he may learn how the GOD of the Jewish captives is King over all the earth. And I might go on almost endlessly. Who would venture to call it, as men speak, chance, that there are seven Beatitudes, seven clauses in the LORD'S Prayer, seven parables concerning the Church, that the LORD spake seven words from the Cross: that He addressed the woman of Samaria seven several times: and when, in the seventh, He first proclaimed Himself the Messiah, He did it in seven words in Greek as well as in English. "I that speak unto thee am He?" And mark the analogy: the Priests went round Jericho on seven separate days: on the seventh day seven times: the great High Priest spoke seven sentences, and in the seventh uttered seven words: and lo, with His proclamation of Himself as the Messiah, the walls of the spiritual Jericho fall down flat: and, no longer, Rahab, but the woman, that, like Rahab, had been a sinner, was joined to the true Israel. And S. Matthew seems to ascribe such mystical virtue to this number, that he actually employs a certain violence to distribute the LORD'S genealogy into three double sevens.
This thing then is certain: seven stands for the covenant relation of GOD with his people. Now, why?
And first notice: the number seven may be made up in three ways: 6 + 1, or 5 + 2, or 3 + 4.
Now carefully observe; whenever it is divided at all in the Bible, it is always into 3 + 4. I believe you cannot produce one single instance of either of the other distributions. In the Lord's Prayer: three petitions about the glory of GOD: (Hallowed be Thy Name: Thy Kingdom come: Thy Will be done:) four for the good of man. In the seven great parables of the Church: four spoken by the sea-side; then a pause; then three in the house. So in the Apocalypse, when four trumpets have sounded, it proceeds: "And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, crying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth, by reason of the other voices of the trumpets of the three angels, which have yet to sound!" So in the vials: after the third, the angel of the waters speaks; and another angel answers: then come the other four. So, with regard to the seven Epistles: in the three first the exhortation to stand fast precedes, in the four last it follows, the promise to him that overcometh. In the seven Words, three are addressed to man: To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise; Woman, behold thy son; I thirst; the other four to GOD, in marvellous analogy with the Lord's Prayer. So in the Beatitudes: four have to do with earth, three with heaven: namely, Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are the pure in heart; Blessed are the peacemakers. And I might, and you may, largely go on.
Well then, have three and four any mystical meanings of their own? Most surely, yes. Three sets forth GOD: four, the world. These numbers, brought into contact and relation, express, in seven, the token of the covenant betwixt the two.
I need not show you that three is the number of GOD. But now about four. Not to speak of the four elements and the four seasons, which are not mentioned in Holy Scripture, we have the four winds. In Ezekiel: "Come from the four winds." In S. Matthew: "They shall gather together His elect from the four winds of heaven." In the Apocalypse: "Four angels standing on the four corners of the earth," holding the four winds of the earth. See in Revelation, the four Living Creatures, emblems of all-created life, and, in Ezekiel, with four faces and four wings; the four beasts in Daniel, lion, bear, leopard, and monster, representing the four great world-powers successively to arise; the four metals in the great world-image; gold, silver, brass, iron; the same metals again when the offerings of regenerated earth are catalogued in Isaiah: "For brass I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver, and for wood brass, and for stones iron;" the four Gospels, type of the preaching through the whole world; the sheet S. Peter saw, knit at the four corners, full of all manner of beasts; the four horns in Zechariah, the sum total of all the world-powers as arrayed against the eternal; the four sore judgments in Ezekiel: sword, famine, evil beasts, pestilence; and compare that with S. John's vision, where power was given to the rider on the ghastly horse to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, (that is disease,) and with the beasts of the earth. The enumeration of diseases by S. John, "Impotent, blind, halt, withered;" and finally, the repeated enumeration of the inhabitants of the world, by "kindreds, and tongues, and people, and nations."
Thus you see how the world is reconciled to GOD in this most mysterious number; and what the GOD of Grace orders, the GOD of Nature typifies. What is the sign of the covenant between GOD and man but the rainbow with its seven colours?
I have been speaking to you for some time, and yet we have only gained the threshold of our text. That, with GOD'S help, must be for this evening. And though what I have now been saying should seem less profitable to you than it might have been, if it only teaches us all, that, the more we search the Scriptures, the more exhaustless they are: that the outward first sense is like a rich wheat field in Australia, and that we must dig deep through that if we would get the nuggets of gold: if it helps to show us all in these days of blasphemy against the Word of GOD how marvellously infinite is the wisdom by which it hangs together, it will be enough.
And now, &c.