December 22: Revelation 20:7-10

Revelation 20:7-10

This the third of the four visionary scenes in chapter 20; it is parallel to the first scene (vv. 1-3, cf. the earlier note), with its emphasis on Satan and the “thousand years”, as representing the period during which he is bound in prison. Within the structure of the vision-sequence, the heavenly throne scene occurs between these two episodes (vv. 4-6, cf. the previous note).

Revelation 20:7-8

“And when the thousand years are completed, the Satan will be loosed out of his (prison) guard, and he will go out to lead astray the nations th(at) are in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to bring them together into the war, of whom their number (is) as the sand of the sea.”

This is perhaps the most unusual and difficult portion of the chapter to explain. If we are to view chap. 20 as a continuation of the Judgment visions in chap. 19, then this episode is totally unexpected. After all, the nations have been defeated and judged, Satan bound, and the People of God (believers) ruling alongside the exalted Jesus (in heaven). This would seem to have settled the matter; yet now, apparently, there is another rebellion by the nations and a second Judgment? Here is where viewing chapter 20 as a separate vision sequence, parallel to that of chap. 19, may make better sense of the eschatological framework. With this approach, the assembling of the nations to battle in 20:7-8ff would be seen as a separate depiction of the same event—the Judgment of the Nations—in 19:17-21.

Let us briefly consider each detail in vv. 7-8, depending on whether chap. 20 is viewed as continuous or parallel with chap. 19 (and the earlier visions):

“when the thousand years were completed” —While the actual number of a thousand is certainly symbolic (indicating completeness, etc, 10 x 100), the idea of a period of time that it represents can be understood several ways; limiting this to the immediate interpretive approach (cf. above), there are two possibilities:

    • (Parallel): The “thousand years”, encompassing the defeat/binding of Satan and the rule of believers alongside Christ, reflects the current Age, specifically the time between the exaltation of Jesus and the end-time Judgment.
    • (Continuous): The thousand years, taken in a more literal sense (as a lengthy period of time), represents the Age to Come on earth; that is to say, the current Age has come to an end, and the “thousand years” marks the New Age.

“the Satan will be loosed out of his (prison) guard” —This of course refers to the binding and imprisonment of Satan in vv. 1-3. Ideally, the release of a prisoner should lead to gratitude and obedience in response (cf. Tacitus Annals 12.37; Josephus Antiquities 10.40; Koester, p. 776), but here the Satan continues to rebel against God instead. Keeping with the same dual line of interpretation, there are again two possibilities:

    • (Parallel): The defeat and binding of Satan (vv. 1-3) corresponds with the scene in 12:7-12, and is related to the work of Jesus that culminates in his death and resurrection (vv. 5, 10-11; cf. also Lk 11:17; 1 Jn 3:8, etc). The “loosing” of Satan then would refer to the end-time period of distress, otherwise referenced in the book of Revelation by the symbolic designation of 3½ years; cp. 12:12 with 20:3.
    • (Continuous): Just as there is a brief but intense period of activity by Satan at the end of the current Age, so there will also be at the end of the Age to Come (the “thousand years”). Satan is bound following the Judgment at the end of the current Age, and will be punished again at the end of the Age to Come.

“and he will go out to lead astray the nations th(at are) in the four corners of the earth” —This draws upon the eschatological tradition of the Judgment of the Nations (collectively), which requires that they assemble together so they can all be judged in one place (Joel 3). A development of this motif has the nations gathering together to make war against God and His People (Israel)—cf. especially Zechariah 12:1-9 and Ezekiel 38-39 (discussed below). The nations were similarly gathered together for battle, by Satan (or his representatives), in 16:12-14; 19:17-21 (cf. also 14:17-20). Interpreting this in v. 7 as parallel with 19:19 is obvious; while a continuous interpretation would mean that the same sort of gathering of the nations (along with their subsequent judgment/defeat) is going to take place at the end of the Age to Come (the “thousand years”).

“Gog and Magog” —These two names, presumably derived from the eschatological oracle in Ezekiel 38-39, here represent “the nations in the four corners of the earth”. In the original oracle “Magog” (gogm*) is a territory north of Israel, possibly to be identified with parts of Anatolia (Cappadocia, Scythia) or Armenia and beyond the Caucasus mountains. The name likewise appears as the name of the eponymous ancestor of this (same?) region in Gen 10:2, but its derivation is otherwise quite unknown. “Gog” (goG) is the ruler or commander of the land of Magog, and could conceivably correspond to the Akkadian gûgu (there was an Anatolian [Lydian] ruler with this name in the 7th century B.C.). Probably “Gog” is simply taken from “Magog”, by assonance/wordplay, etc, to create a specially colorful and ominous combination.

“to bring them together into the war” —Here in the book of Revelation, “Gog and Magog” serve as a kind of shorthand for the entire scenario in Ezek 38-39—i.e., of the collection of distant nations who assemble together to attack Israel (cf. also Zech 12:1-9). The same oracle was in view in 19:17-21 (cf. Ezek 39:17-20), which tends to confirm the interpretive view (cf. above) that chaps. 19 and 20 are parallel accounts of the same basic Judgment scene. The Qumran War Scroll also associates Gog and Magog with the wicked nations who are to be defeated in the great end-time battle (1QM 11:6, 16-18; cf. also 4Q161 fr. 8-10 col. iii. 10-21). Now, “the war” takes on more cosmic significance, being waged against God and the People of God (exalted in heaven); it is quite literally the climax of the conflict between God and the forces of evil (cf. below).

“of whom their number (is) as the sand of the sea” —On the one hand, this is simply a picturesque idiom to describe a great multitude, especially when used of an army assembled for battle (Josh 11:4; Judg 7:12; 1 Sam 13:5). However, the association with the sea in the book of Revelation suggests perhaps a deeper allusion—recall that in 12:18, just prior to the rise of the evil Sea-creature, the Dragon (Satan) was standing there “upon the sand of the sea”.

Revelation 20:9

“And they stepped up upon the wide space of the earth and encircled the (gathering) of the holy (one)s (that had) thrown (down) alongside (each other), and (also) the city having been loved, and fire stepped down out of heaven and ate them down.”

The noun parembolh/, difficult to translate literally in English, refers to the idea of military troops thrown together alongside each other, i.e. as in rows or arranged in a camp. It is very much a military battle that is envisioned, with the forces of “Gog and Magog” encircling the group of “holy ones”, as well as the city designated by the perfect participle “having been loved” (vb a)gapa/w). Here “the city” is Jerusalem, or, more properly, the portion of the city where the Temple was located—the old Canaanite fortified hill-site known in tradition as the “City of David” or “Zion” (cf. Psalm 78:68; 87:1-2, etc). This is scarcely the earthly Jerusalem, in its ordinary sense, in spite of the traditions drawn on from Zech 12:1-9, etc. In the book of Revelation, the earthly Jerusalem is not depicted in a positive light, having been overrun by the wicked nations (11:2, 7-10). Only the Temple sanctuary, figuratively speaking, where the faithful ones (believers) gather, truly represents the holy city. Similarly, believers gather around the Lamb on “Zion” in the vision of 14:1-5. The realization of Jerusalem as the true holy city (“the new Jerusalem”) must wait until the visions of chaps. 21-22 (to be discussed).

The punishment and defeat of “Gog and Magog” is accomplished via supernatural means, much as the nations are defeated by the “sword” that comes out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth in the earlier Judgment vision (19:15ff). The image of “fire coming down out of heaven” is a traditional motif of Divine Judgment, on cities and peoples, cf. Gen 19:24; 1 Kings 18:39; 2 Kings 1:10-12; Luke 9:54), which here is used in the eschatological context of the Last Judgment (cp. Luke 10:12 par; 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; Rev 11:9). Elsewhere in the book of Revelation fire comes down on the nations as a sign of the great Judgment—8:5, 7-11; 11:5; 15:8; 16:8; 17:16; 18:9; cp. 14:10-11; 19:3. The same imagery was used in the oracle of Ezek 38-39 which inspired this scene (38:22; 39:6).

The imagery of Gog and Magog “stepping up” onto the broad surface of the earth, presumably from somewhere ‘below’, suggests that these are not normal human armies—on this, cf. the notice below.

Revelation 20:10

“And the (One) casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$], the (one) leading them (all) astray, he was cast into the lake of fire and sulphur, where also the wild animal and the false foreteller [i.e. False Prophet] (were cast), and they shall be tested (painfully with fire) day and night, into the Ages of Ages.”

This represents the final defeat of the forces of evil, parallel with what was described in 19:20. The idea of the Devil (o( dia/bolo$), or Belial, being punished and devoured by fire is found elsewhere in Jewish tradition (e.g., 1Q13 iii. 7; Testament of Judah 25:3). As for the expression “lake of fire”, it draws upon the more general imagery of fire as a sign (and form) of Divine punishment (cf. above, and note in Isa 30:33; 66:24). The fiery end of the Sea- and Earth-creatures (“wild animal” and “false prophet”) resembles that of the fourth ‘beast’ in Daniel 7:11. The wicked/rebellious Angels could likewise be depicted as being thrown into a fiery abyss (1 Enoch 10:6ff; 21:7-10). The specific combination of fire and a lake probably is derived from common underworld imagery; on such rivers, etc, of fire, see, for example, Plato Phaedo 113ab; Virgil Aeneid 6.550-51). For these and other references, cf. Koester, pp. 761, 779.

The difficulties in explaining the scenario of vv. 7-10 have been noted above, including the wider interpretative question of whether the visions of chap. 20 are best understood as a continuation of chap. 19, or as a separate sequence parallel to it. Complicating the situation is the use of “Gog and Magog” as a symbol. There is some indication that it does not refer simply to the ordinary nations known to readers (such as those of the Roman Empire, etc), but should be regarded as a mythic figure-type for peoples from beyond the recognized boundaries of the earth (“the four corners”). This would make “Gog and Magog” akin to the Sea- and Earth-creatures of chaps. 13ff, who serve as figures of the forces of evil at work in the world. In support of this, I would note:

    • The location of “Gog and Magog” as “in the four corners of the earth”. In the original oracle of Ezekiel 38-39, Gog and Magog are said to come from the remotest parts of the north (38:6, 15); now this conceptual delimitation is given wider cosmic significance. It is a basic point of human religious and cultural psychology, that the boundaries of the known world tend to be regarded as the domain of frightening alien beings.
    • Here Gog and Magog “step up” onto the broad space of the earth’s surface, suggesting that they come up from a location below the earth, much like the hybrid-demon beings in the fifth and sixth trumpet-visions of chapter 9.
    • These strange ‘nations’ are described as a vast multitude, numbering “as the sand of the sea”; the demonic ‘armies’ in 9:16-19 are similarly vast. Moreover, the descriptive expression here likely alludes to the earlier scene of the Dragon standing “upon the sand of the sea” (12:18).
    • The fate of theses ‘nations’ is to be consumed by heavenly fire, just like the Sea- and Earth-creatures, and Satan himself.

Even so, there is clearly an intentional parallel between the Judgment scenes in 19:17-21 and 20:7-10, reflecting, if you will, two stages in the end-time Judgment and final defeat of evil:

    • The immediate nations, influenced by the Sea-creature are defeated and slain in battle
      • The Sea-creature (and his ally) are thrown into the lake of fire
    • The distant nations, influenced by the Satan/Devil himself, are defeated and slain in battle
      • The Satan/Devil is thrown into the lake of fire

These two episodes bracket the scene of the “thousand years”, signifying the resurrection/exaltation of believers, who now rule alongside Jesus—parallel to his own resurrection/exaltation. This may be outlined as:

    • The Judgment in its earthly aspect—the human nations on earth (16:12-16ff; 19:17-21)
    • The Thousand Years—the resurrection/exaltation of believers (20:1-6)
    • The Judgment in its heavenly aspect—the distant nations of the earth, signifying more clearly the forces of evil (20:7-10ff)
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