And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth…
I. THE EVENTS FIGURATIVELY REPRESENTED BY THE FOUR WINDS. Different opinions have been expressed respecting these winds. Bishop Newton and other writers understand by them those Pagan persecutions which assailed the Christian Church prior to the time of Constantine, and which were removed when he took the Christian religion under his protection. The text evidently includes all winds that injure the Christian Church and impede true religion in the world; but Constantine only suspended one wind to let loose another, equally, if not more, injurious than the wind of persecution; I mean the winds of error, formality, earthly-mindedness, and general corruption. Mr. Jones, author of the history of the Waldenses, makes these winds to mean the influences of the Holy Spirit, which, he says, were with. held from the Church when she became the favourite of the state under Constantine. It is quite true that the influences of the Holy Spirit are frequently represented in Scripture by the figurative term "winds." Still this cannot be the true meaning of the term "winds" in this passage, for this reason, the four angels are commanded to restrain these winds till the servants of God are sealed; whereas this sealing cannot be effected without the influences of the Spirit. What, then, are we to understand by the winds mentioned? I answer, two things:
1. Divine judgments. Wars, famine, pestilence, the overthrow of kingdoms, and the universal wreck of all earthly things. The particular judgments to which these winds refer are, I think, those mentioned in the sixth seal, at the close of the sixth chapter, and whose fearful operations are represented by the seven trumpets in the eighth chapter.
2. All events and influences unfavourable to the cause of Christ. The wind of persecution; the wind of false doctrine; the wind of delusion and wild fanaticism; the wind of temptation; the wind of infidelity; the wind of open profanity and blasphemy; the winds of affliction, adversity, and distress; by all of which the Church is frequently assailed. These things are called "winds," because they produce agitation and commotion — breaking the branches, blasting the fruits, and uprooting the trees of God's spiritual vineyard. They are called "four" winds, to show their universality, their wide-spreading desolation. They are called winds of the "earth," because earth is the scene of their operation — they are for ever excluded from heaven; their coming from the four cardinal points at once shows their violence, rage, and fury.
II. THE AGENTS TO WHOM THEY ARE COMMITTED. This notion of angels ruling the winds is very ancient. Herodotus says it was held by the Persians; Eusebius says it was held by the Phoenicians; Pausanias says it was held by the Greeks; says it was held by the Romans; Seneca and Virgil say it was held by the Gauls; and most of these people worshipped these ruling spirits. Some understand by the four angels four monarchies, the Babylonian, the Grecian, the Persian, and the Roman; but this cannot be, for at the time to which this passage refers, the monarchies will have long been forgotten, while existing monarchies will be the objects of this vengeance, and not the executioners of it. Others understand by these four angels four emperors, Maximinus, Galerius, Maxenfius, and Licinius, or their praetorian prefects; but the same objections stand against them as against the monarchies. Others think that four persecuting powers are meant. Others think four evil angels, or demons, are meant, who hold back the winds of the Spirit from blowing upon this valley of death, that the dry bones might live; or who are charged with destructive powers, as the messengers of an angry God; but as their work is first to restrain all antagonistic influences to the gospel, while it effects the high purposes of God, and then to execute the Divine vengeance at the day of Christ; and as these employments are nowhere ascribed to wicked angels, this cannot be the real meaning. These are four good angels. This appears first, from the fact that they are here represented as taking a part with the fifth angel in sealing the servants of God; also from their being entrusted with such an important post — restraining wicked spirits, persecuting men, antagonist influences, and Divine judgments, till grace has worked out its wonders. Then their attitude — standing — signifies that they have no settled dominion; that they are the movable ministers of God; that they are ready to do His pleasure.
III. THE GREAT BEING WHO COMMANDS THEIR POSTPONEMENT OR SUSPENSION.
1. Bishop Newton, and several other writers both before and since his day, tell us that this angel was Constantine the Great, who, they say, brought light, protection, and deliverance to the Christian Church that had been greatly afflicted under the persecuting tyranny of the Pagan Roman emperors. As far as I can judge, there is not even the shadow of a reason for thinking that this angel was Constantine.
(1) The language applied to this angel is too sublime to refer to a fallen creature like Constantine.
(2) The events which this angel is said to control, and the magnificent work he is said to accomplish, are not the narrow and limited circumstances of one man's life, but they stretch through ages; spread over kingdoms, continents, sea, and land.
(3) The character of Constantine differs widely from what we must believe was the real character of the angel referred to in this passage.
(4) The influences on true religion, which followed Constantine's interference, were, in many respects, just the opposite to those which the angel in the text is said to produce. This angel not only suspends persecution and postpones judgments, but vital godliness greatly prospers, as is evident from the number that are said to be sealed. Besides, this prosperity of genuine religion is not for a brief period, but it appears to extend through centuries. Now, is there anything analogous to this, which may be regarded as the result of Constantine's interference? That some good resulted to the then existing and persecuted Church, from this interference, we do not deny. Persecution was suspended. Still we maintain that the evil accruing from this change preponderates; it brought her in contact with a secular power that tarnished her purity, beclouded her glory, enervated her native power.
2. Well, who is this Angel? Why, the Lord Jesus Christ, the uncreated Angel of the Covenant, to whom the figurative language of the text applies to the very letter. This Angel is described —
(1) By the point of His ascension. "And I saw another Angel ascending from the east." This was literally true of Christ; He came from the east, and hence He is called the East, or, as it is commonly rendered, "the Day-spring from on high." But His ascending from the east shows the favourable nature of His mission and character. The east is the great fountain of light, life, fruitfulness, purity, and joy; so this Angel, Christ, is called the Sun of Righteousness, that visits our world with healing beneath His wings. He is that bright, shining Sun, that never sets, but whose heavenly radiance always beams upon His Church, giving salvation, light, beauty, and joy.
(2) By credentials He bears. "Having the seal of the living God"; which refers, first, to His office as Mediator between God and man. This refers to a custom among the kings of the earth, who have their own confidential servants to whom they deliver certain seals of office. These seals of office are the influences of the Spirit without measure; authority to bestow them, procured by virtue of His atonement; energy, to carry all His plans into successful operation; and all power, both in heaven and in earth, to render all things, creatures, and events, subservient to His designs. But His having the seal of the living God goes further still. It refers to the dignity of His person, as the Son of God, as well as to the glory and credentials of His office, as the Saviour of the world. Having the seal of the living God — that is, having in His own nature the visible impress of deity, the authentic testimony, proof, and demonstration that He Himself was the living God, the brightness of His Father's glory, and the express image of His person.
(3) By the supreme authority He assumes. "He cried with a loud voice," the emblem of supreme authority and power; He commands or forbids as He pleases, and whatsoever He wills is done.
(4) By the command He gives. "Hurt not the earth, neither the sea nor the trees." No devastating wars, no raging persecutions, no fearful and wide-spreading judgments, must be permitted to hinder the cause of Christ. The contrary winds must sleep at the feet of their presiding angels, till the ark of salvation is filled with the whole family of God and safely moored in the peaceful bay of heaven.
IV. THE REASON ASSIGNED FOR THEIR SUSPENSION. "Till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads."
1. The nature of it. To seal a person or thing is to set a mark upon it for a specific purpose. The term is frequently employed in the Scriptures to express the operations of grace, by which believers are separated from the world and made meet for heaven.
2. The agents of it. "We." The work of salvation is of Christ from first to last.
3. The subjects of it. "Servants of God," that is, true believers, those who serve God by obeying His commands and seeking His glory. They are sealed to serve Him here and to enjoy Him hereafter.
4. Visibility of it. "In their foreheads."
5. The chief design of it. That believers should not be "hurt" by the fearful calamities that are predicted in the sixth seal, as speedily to fall upon the wicked. God marks them as His special property; and being thus sealed, they live under the special protection of His providence while here, and will meet with an effectual shelter in the great day of His wrath.
6. The extent of it. The question was once put to Christ, "Lord, are there few that shall be saved?" Here the question receives an answer which shows that there will be many, so that in this, as well as in all other things, Christ will have the pre-eminence.
(1) We have a specific number. Twelve thousand out of each tribe were sealed, making one hundred and forty-four thousand in the whole, which in prophetic language signifies completion and perfection.
(2) We have a general number. The whole assembly of the redeemed, including Jews and Gentiles, rises in splendid array to the apostle's view.
7. The ultimate glory of it. "They stand before the throne, and before the Lamb."
Parallel VersesKJV: And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.