And the sixth angel poured out his vial on the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up…
The river Euphrates, the dividing stream (in old time) between Israel and Assyria, between Israel and Babylon — the dividing stream (in typical language) between the Israel of God and the foes of God, between the Church and the world, between the disciples of Jesus Christ and the opposing hosts and powers of evil — is dried up, by the outpouring of the sixth vial, that the last confederacy of infidelity and ungodliness may be tempted onward to its ruin. These vials are vials of wrath. The longsuffering of ages is at length exhausted: the measure of earth's iniquity is at last fun. The time is come for a decisive battle: the kings from the east, from the enemy's side of the river, shall be encouraged to cross over, shall be permitted to pass over dryshod, that they may throw themselves, in all their proud superiority of strength and numbers, upon "the camp of the saints" and upon "the beloved city." Such is the parable. Enough of palliatives and enough of compromises: enough of human expedients for harmonising the irreconcilable, for making truth speak the speech of compliment, and toning down revelation till human reason shall flatter herself that she invented it: not thus can the true life be lived, the reality of death faced, or a boundless eternity entered: not thus shall place ever be found for that "new heaven and new earth," "in which dwelleth righteousness," in which "the tabernacle of God is with men." There must first be a war and a battle: the war of spiritual combatants, the battle of the great day of God Almighty. Thus we are enabled to contemplate, with awe but not with dismay, all that growing boldness and insolence of unbelief which seems likely to be characteristic of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It is all working up to a consummation — a consummation foreordained of God — a consummation revealed by Him in prophecy. The three unclean spirits which gather the invading powers to the battle of the great day are said to issue from the mouth of the dragon, and from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. The reference is to the section of the three enemies, occupying the twelfth and two following chapters of this book.
1. The dragon is described to us in the twelfth chapter by figures and names, which leave no doubt of their meaning. He is expressly termed the devil and Satan — the old serpent, with evident reference to the history of man's fall — the deceiver of the whole world — the accuser of the brethren. He is described as a dragon — that fabulous monster of antiquity, with its huge coils of serpent-like scales — here painted with seven heads, ten horns upon one of them, and seven crowns — telling at once of manifold versatility, giant strength, and more than regal dominion. He is described further as casting down to the earth the third part of the stars of heaven — to express at once the audacity of his presumption, and the superhuman sweep of his success. He stands before the woman clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars — emblem of the Church of God now travailing in birth with the Saviour of prophecy and of expectation — stands, I say, watching for the Incarnation, and eager to devour the Divine Child at the moment of His birth. Frustrated by the final rescue which transfers the imperilled Saviour, by ascension, to the throne of God in heaven — and himself receiving a defeat in the war with the glorified Christ which hurls him back, wrathful and revengeful, upon an earth not yet regenerated — he turns all his fury first upon the Church, which escapes from him into the wilderness, cared for by God Himself, who has prepared there her temporary home and her heavenly supplies — cared for by God, but helped even by the earth, who, in a sense wonderfully true to history, has sometimes even protected and favoured her — first, I say, upon the Church herself, and then (by a slight modification of the metaphor) upon the individual Christian, represented as not yet sharing the full security of the Church as a whole, as having still to fight for his life, though the Church is guaranteed from the once threatened destruction.
2. The second enemy is depicted in the thirteenth chapter. A wild beast of hideous composite form — lion, bear, and leopard in one — is seen by the evangelist rising out of the sea. With one slight — very slight — difference his first appearance is that of the dragon himself. There are the seven heads and the ten horns upon one of them, only in this latter case the horns arc crowned, not the heads, and therefore the crowns are ten, not seven. The dragon gives him his power and his throne: he is to represent him: the dragon is a power out of sight: the beast is his impersonation and his "express image." One peculiarity of this foe is a portentous vitality. He receives a mortal wound, but he lives again. The admiration of the beholders rises into adoration. They worship the dragon who gave him his authority, and they worship the beast who lives after dying. The second enemy is the world. There is no mistaking the symbolism. In the interpretation of Daniel's vision the four beasts combined into the beast before us are expressly said to be kings: the beast is the world, as the dragon is the devil. The world, in its aspect of power — the aspect here presented — is a great reality. In St. John's time it was the formidable — apart from revelation the irresistible, invincible — foe of the little Church of Jesus Christ. The time was to be when an apparently fatal wound was to be inflicted upon this antagonist — a wound, of which one illustration, if not the one fulfilment, was to be the nominal conversion of the Roman Empire to the faith which once it persecuted. Surely that wound was a mortal wound? Wait a while and you shall see the world rise from its bed of death — you shall see names changed, realities surviving — you shall see kings ruling in lust and rapine "by the grace of God" — you shall see the nominally Christian world wax wanton in turn against its imaged and sculptured Lord — you shall see Christian kings issuing their edicts of exile against Christian worshippers, and Papal Rome drawing from her scabbard the sword which Pagan Rome had for ever sheathed. The power of the world is superhuman in its vitality: the dragon — this accounts for it — gives the beast his throne and his authority, and that throne and that authority, call themselves what they may, are still adverse and antagonistic to the cause and the people of Jesus Christ.
3. There is a third enemy, called in the text, for the first time, "the false prophet"; but clearly marked, in later passages of the nineteenth and twentieth chapters, as identical with the "beast from the earth" of the thirteenth. His characteristics are peculiar. They combine might and meekness. He has two horns like a lamb, but he speaks like a dragon; he unites the seeming innocence of the lamb with the subtlety which beguiled Eve in the serpent. There is no doubt as to his origin — it is more patent than that of the second — he comes up out of the earth whatever his apparent influence with heaven and the unseen. In some sense he is the viceroy of the second enemy; "he exercises all his power before him" — the power which the dragon gave he guides to its destination. His work is to glorify in every way the beast which is the world. He makes earth worship the world. He magnifies, by every art and every persuasion, the miracle of the revival. He props miracle by miracle, can make fire come down from heaven by his incantations to deceive mankind into the idolatry of the beast which died and lives. He bids them make an image of the god-world, and then he puts life into the image and makes it speak. St. John lived in days when the beast was embodied in the empire, and when the image of the emperor was an object of worship. The suspected Christian was bidden for his life to sacrifice to that image. All this would make the figures of this part of the vision very real and very life-like to the Church of that time. Illustrative, not exhaustive, of them. The second beast, like the first — the third enemy, like the second, lives on until now. He is the wisdom, as the other is the power, of this world. He is that subtler, more penetrating influence of policy and diplomacy, of skill and scheming, of expediency and statecraft, of knowledge divorced from religion, of science falsely so called, of reason set against revelation, and creatureship exalted into rivalry with the Creator, without which the brute-force of wealth and numbers, of edicts and penalties, of arms and armies, would have no avail ever against intellect and enlightenment, would have lost it long ago in the face of popular growth and advancing freedom. It must be confessed that it is not easy to set before ourselves in a sharp, strong, telling way the distinctions and contrasts of the three enemies. They interlace and intertwine with each other — their general drift is the same — they are working to one end, and they are helping one another to reach it. Yet we must endeavour to see why they are distinguished, and to discover their special characteristics as influences upon the generation occupying the earth on the very eve of the great day. "I saw three unclean spirits come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet."(1) We might hesitate long and anxiously about the first of these. We might think of many characteristics of the evil spirit in his fall and in his ruin, in his reign and in his warfare, as they are suggested to us in the hints and warnings of the Bible. But there is one quality which seems to underlie and motive all, and that is insubordination. It is the unwillingness to keep the rank and the station — "the first estate," as St. Jude calls it — assigned by the Lord of all to the individual being created. It is the inability to curb and coerce the unruly workings of that pride of self, that lust of liberty, that passion for independence and exemption from jurisdiction, which begins by trying to escape from the omnipresence, and ends by making omnipotence itself its foe.
(2) And what of the inspiration from the "beast" which is the world? To it also we might assign many names, but we shall choose one among them and call it materialism. It is the pressure upon us, the influence over us, of this brute thing, the power of the present, the power of the seen, the power of sense and time, the power of the circumstance and the surrounding of the men that shall die and the world that passeth away; it is the inability to withstand the custom and the fashion, the force of numbers and the cry of voices and the command of the society which can compel or outlaw; it is the influence, in One shape, of clamorous appetite and eager ambition and unsatisfied getting; it is the influence, in another shape, of the meanest and vilest of philosophies, saying, The body is all — let it have its way; or, The body is all — there is no hereafter.
(3) Insubordination — materialism — what shall be the third spirit? Think of the characteristics of the lamb-like, serpent-like wonder-worker — of the ingenious subtle inventor that can draw fire from the sky and make images speak — that can assert itself under another's name, impose its edicts with authority, and ostracise the poor Christian that would so much as buy or sell unmolested — think of all this, and you will not count the third influence misnamed if we call it intellectualism — the thing which struts and parades itself as "thought," intelligence, an open mind, a refusal to see with other's eyes, a repudiation of the received, a passion for the original — though its discoveries are oftentimes the mere echo of an echo from days of obsolete objection, of puerile, infantine bewilderment.
Parallel VersesKJV: And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.