November 12: Revelation 17:1-5

Revelation 17-18

In chapter 17-18 there is presented a pair of visions which build upon the “Fall of Babylon” theme in the seventh bowl-vision (cf. the note on 16:17-21), and announced previously in 14:8. Each of these chapters consists of an initial vision (17:1-6; 18:1-3), followed by a detailed exposition. In the first instance an interpretation of the vision is provided by the Messenger, in the second, the poetry of the vision is followed by a longer poem patterned after the oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51.

Revelation 17:1-6

“And one out of the seven Messengers holding the seven offering-dishes came and spoke with me, saying: ‘Come here, (and) I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute th(at is) sitting upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth engaged in prostitution, and the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] on the earth were intoxicated out of the wine of her prostitution!’ And he led me away from (there) into a desolate (place), in the Spirit, and I saw a woman sitting upon a crimson-colored wild animal full of names of insult (to God) (and) holding seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was (as one) having cast about (her) purple and crimson (garments), and having been made golden with gold and honorable [i.e. valuable] stone and pearls, holding a drinking-cup in her hand being full of stinking things and the unclean (thing)s of her prostitution; and upon the (space) between her eyes a name having been written, a secret: Babilim the great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking things of the earth!” (vv. 1-5)

The narrative introduction to this vision (v. 1) demonstrates its close connection to the bowl-cycle of chapters 15-16; in many ways, chapters 17-19 are part of this same cycle, representing a continuation of the sixth and seventh visions. The judgment of “Babylon” has already been depicted in the seventh bowl-vision (cf. the previous note) and the earlier visions in chapter 14 (vv. 8ff), and here we have the same basic visionary event described in different terms (and in considerably more detail). Like all the bowl-visions, the symbolism represents the traditional eschatological idea of the Judgment of the Nations, with “Babylon”, the “great city”, representing the nations (and their rulers/governments) collectively. Nations and cities are typically referred to in feminine terms—a vestige of which survives even today in English—and may thus be personified and symbolized as a woman, with female imagery. The wickedness of the “great city” (Babylon) has already been emphasized, along with the use of wine imagery (i.e. the drinking-cup of wine) to represent it (14:8ff; 16:19). Though not occurring here in chapter 17, the word qumo/$ (“impulse”) is used to describe this intoxicating ‘wine’ (i.e. an impulse toward wickedness), even as it is for God’s own desire to punish it by pouring out the ‘wine’ of His anger (14:8, 10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19).

This set of images naturally comes together here in the figure of a prostitute (po/rnh). The Greek pornei/a (vb porneu/w) properly refers to acts of prostitution (sexual intercourse for hire). However, like the similar root hnz in Hebrew, it can also be used more generally of sexual immorality (including adultery, etc), as well as figuratively, in the religious sense, for unfaithfulness to God (idolatry, false religious practices, etc). The wicked and idolatrous “nations” are occasionally referred to as prostitutes in the oracles of the Old Testament Prophets (Isa 23:16-17; Nah 3:4), as is God’s own people Israel when they fall away from him (Hos 4:12-13; 5:3; Jer 3:1-14; Ezek 16:15-22ff; 23:1-49; cf. also Hos 2:5; Jer 2:20; Koester, p. 671).

In the Greco-Roman world, the common prostitute was simply called po/rnh, while the wealthier courtesan, supported by a higher-class clientele, was known as a e(tai/ra (lit. female companion). The imagery here in chapter 17 draws from traditional descriptions of both upper- and lower-class prostitutes. Generally her wealth and prominence are emphasized (clothing and jewelry, etc), but the motif of drunkenness suggests a lower-class milieu. For relevant citations from Greco-Roman literature, see those given by Koester, pp. 671-2.

This prostitute is associated with the Sea, a symbol of the dark and turbulent domain of evil that goes back to the visions in chapter 12-13. This association is expressed two ways:

    • she is sitting (kaqhme/nh$) upon (e)pi/) “many waters” (v. 1), and
    • she is sitting (kaqhme/nh$) upon (e)pi/) a creature nearly identical to the one which came out of the Sea (v. 3, cp. 13:1ff)

In the third bowl-vision (16:4-7), the “waters” (rivers and fountains) effectively represent the presence of the Sea upon the earth—symbolizing, specifically, the presence and influence of the dark forces of evil over the kingdoms of the earth. At the same time, the expression “many waters” is also associated with the presence of God in heaven (1:15; 14:2; 19:6), and so here likely alludes to an attempt by the evil-forces on earth to deceive people by appearing and acting ‘like God’. This is rather clearly expressed in the chapter 13 visions; cf. also Paul’s description of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3-4ff.

That the “kings of the earth” both engage in prostitution with this “woman” and become intoxicated by her “wine” —the two images refer to the same thing—means that they are influenced by her and, in a real sense, are united with her (cf. Paul’s line of argument in 1 Cor 6:12-20). The motif of “drunkenness” suggests that the nations (and its leaders) no longer understand what they are doing, becoming completely under the influence and control of the prostitute’s wickedness. And, indeed, her influence is that of the waters and the sea-creature (i.e. forces of evil) upon which she sits, and whose ultimate power stems from the evil Dragon (the Satan/Devil). For the specific association of drunkenness with prostitution, cf. Ezekiel 23:40-42; Testament of Judah 13:5-6, and the references in Koester, p. 672.

The actual vision of the prostitute comes in verse 3, where the seer (“John”) is again taken “in the Spirit” (1:10; 4:2; 21:10; cf. Ezek 3:12; 8:3) to a new visionary location—into a desolate (i.e. desert) place. The desert was a traditional setting for the People of God encountering YHWH (or His Messenger); given the context here of the prostitute, etc, a specific allusion to Hosea 2:14-15 may be in mind. The description of the prostitute may be outlined as follows:

  1. Verse 3. She is sitting on a creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) nearly identical in appearance to the creature that came out of the Sea (13:1ff), who also happens to resemble the Dragon (12:3). The only difference here is the mention of its color as dark red (crimson/scarlet, ko/kkino$). The mention of the color is likely two-fold: (a) to show the close connection and affinity between the woman and the creature, and (b) as an allusion to the wine which she gives people to drink. There is no reason to think that this is anything other than the same Sea-creature of chapter 13, and, as such, its symbolism is also the same. By “sitting upon” the Sea-creature, even as she sits upon the dark/evil waters (v. 1), it is demonstrated that the prostitute receives her support (and power) from the evil Sea-creature.
  2. Verse 4a. Her attire—clothed in luxurious purple and crimson (ko/kkino$) garments, with gold ornaments and jewelry inset with precious stones and pearls. As noted above, this marks her as a high-class courtesan. Purple was especially associated with royalty, indicating her influence over the “kings of the earth”; while the crimson could also allude specifically to the shedding of blood (14:19-20; 16:6; 19:2), even as it does to the wine of her wickedness.
  3. Verse 4b. The drinking-cup of wine she holds—on this cup and the motif of wine, cf. above and the earlier note on 14:8ff. While previously, the wine-cup was identified generally with her impulse (qumo/$) to wickedness, here it is said to be filled specifically with the “stinking things” (bdelugma/ta) and “unclean (thing)s” (a)ka/qarta) of her actual prostitution. The motifs of drunkenness and dirtiness reveal the lower-class side of the prostitute. The most notable occurrence of the noun bde/lugma outside of the book of Revelation (also v. 5; 21:27) is in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13:14 par), where it alludes to Daniel 9:27 (and 11:31; 12:11). Almost certainly it has the same sort of eschatological significance here—i.e. of a wicked ruling power that opposes God, profaning His holiness and persecuting His people (cf. again the visions in chapter 13).
  4. Verse 5. The name written on her forehead (lit. the space between the eyes). This corresponds with the “mark” (xa/ragma) of the Sea-creature (its name) that the people on earth receive, marking them as belonging to the creature, and thus as wicked unbelievers (13:16; 14:9; 20:4). By contrast, true believers do not receive this mark; rather, they are marked/sealed by the name God and the Lamb (Jesus) in the same middle of the forehead (7:3; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4)—in 14:1, it is specifically said to be written (perfect participle gegramme/non, as here) on the forehead.

The name on the prostitute’s forehead is said to be “Babylon” (Babulw/n), and is described in verse 5b. This aspect of the woman—her identification with Babylon, in the overall context of the vision—will be discussed in detail in the next daily note.

References above (and throughout this series) marked “Koester” are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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November 11: Revelation 16:17-21

Revelation 16:12-21, continued

The sixth vision (vv. 12-16) was examined in the previous note. We saw how that vision of the Judgment of the nations, presented after the pattern of nation-oracles in the Prophets (Joel 3, Zech 12, etc)—the “Day of YHWH” theme—was left unfulfilled. As in the prior Seal- and Trumpet-vision cycles, there is a pause or interval after the sixth vision. Here the interval consists of the seventh vision itself, along with the announcement of the Fall of Babylon (17:1-19:3), before the scene in the sixth vision finally comes to a close.

Revelation 16:17-21: Seventh Vision

“And the seventh (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the sky, and a great voice came out of the shrine, from the ruling-seat, saying: ‘It has come to be‘.” (v. 17)

Each of the seven Messengers (Angels) pours the dish in a different location; while this is not presented systematically, the locations generally correspond to four regions (and elements) that comprise the world:

    • Earth (gh=), earth, the dry land and domain of human beings, i.e. the inhabited world—Vision 1 (v. 1)
    • Sea (qa/lassa), water, also symbolizing the dark, chaotic domain (of evil)—Vision 2 & 3 (vv. 3ff)
    • Sun (h%lio$), fire, i.e. the heavenly domain from which the fiery Judgment (fire from heaven) comes—Vision 5 (v. 8)
    • Sky (a)h/r), air, the atmosphere and expanse of the sky, where winds blow, etc, traditionally signifying power and authority—Vision 7 (v. 17)

The significance of the sky or “air” here in the seventh vision probably has to do with two factors: (1) the atmosphere as the space in between heaven and earth, and (2) as a symbol of power, authority, control, etc. The immediate context is the Judgment on the nations—that is, earthly kingdoms and centers of power—symbolized primarily by the “great city” (Babylon). As previously noted, ancient Near Eastern cities were located on hills and elevated sites, and so here drawing appropriately upon the mountain-image, i.e. a place located between heaven and earth—above the earth (and the general human population), but beneath heaven (and the heavenly beings).

All of the visions in chapters 15-16 involve messages (and messengers) coming from out of the sanctuary (nao/$, “shrine”) in heaven. Gradually, we are taken further back into the sanctuary, so that we see these messages coming, first from the altar in the sanctuary, and now from the innermost shrine (‘holy of holies’). The allusion here is to the golden chest (‘ark of the covenant’) which effectively served as the throne (qro/no$, “ruling-seat”) of YHWH in the ancient Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple. It represents the dwelling place of God among His People, and the “great voice” coming from it must be that of God Himself (as also in verse 1). The message consists of a single word: ge/gonen, “it has come to be”, a solemn announcement that the great Judgment is about to be fulfilled.

“And there came to be (lightning) flashes and voices and thunders, and there came to be a great shaking, such as (has) not come to be from the (time at) which man came to be upon the earth, a (mighty) shaking of such size as this!” (v. 18)

By pouring the dish upon the sky (the atmosphere), the initial effect is to cause terrifying celestial phenomena. In Israelite tradition, God (El-YHWH) was often association with the storm, and described with ancient storm-theophany images—lightning, thunder, wind, etc. The use of the word “voices” here is based on the traditional motif of thunder as the “voice” (Hebrew loq) of God. These same phenomena were manifest at the end of the Trumpet-cycle (11:19), and, indeed, such supernatural phenomena and upheavals of the natural order were a well-established part of Jewish eschatology and apocalyptic—a way of describing God’s end-time Judgment (cf. Mark 13:24-26 par; Rev 6:12-17, and prophetic passages such as Isaiah 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; and Ezek 32:7). In particular, the “shaking” (seismo/$), usually understood as that of an earthquake, is emphasized, since it is what will topple the “great city”.

The repeated use of the verb gi/nomai (4 times, aorist middle “came to be, has come to be”) stems from God’s voice declaring “it has come to be” (perfect passive, ge/gonen). It illustrates how God’s word governs completely the execution of the Judgment; most translations, unfortunately, totally ignore this important bit of wordplay.

“And the great city came to be into three parts—and the cities of the nations fell! And (so) Babilim the great was remembered in the sight of God—to give her the drinking-cup of the wine of the impulse of His anger.” (v. 19)

These are not two events, but two ways of describing the same event. Moreover, it should be obvious (if there was any doubt) that “the great city” and “Babylon the great” (14:8; chaps. 17-18) do not refer to an actual geographical location, but symbolize earthly/worldly power—i.e. the nations and their governments. Two images are brought together to depict this judgment: (1) an earthquake, natural enough for the destruction of a city, and (2) the wine-cup (14:9-11, 17-20, and the motif of the offering-dishes being poured out). A full (four-fold) descriptive chain is used here for the wine-cup—”the cup of the wine of the impulse of His anger”, adding to the solemn power of the moment.

There is again an echo of God’s word (ge/gonen, “it has come to be”) at the opening of this verse: “it came to be” (e)ge/neto).

“And (then) the islands fled and the mountains were not found, and great falling (hail) as a talent-weight (size) stepped [i.e. came] down out of heaven upon the men (of earth), and (yet) the men insulted God out of the striking of the falling (hail), (in) that [i.e. because] the great striking of it was most violent.” (vv. 20-21)

This is an interesting juxtaposition of images that illustrates the unique visionary logic of the book of Revelation. The upheaval of the islands and mountains, itself a traditional image (Judg 5:5; Job 9:5-6ff; Psalm 18:7; 46:2-3; 97:5; 104:7, 32; Isa 40:4; 42:15; 54:10; Nah 1:5; Ezek 38:20; Mark 11:23 par; Rev 6:14-16), is suddenly transformed into a scene of giant hailstones falling from the sky. Very likely the latter image is another echo of the Egyptian Plagues (Exod 9:24), though, in an agricultural society, hail was a natural enough symbol of disaster and divine judgment (Isa 30:30; Josh 10:11; Ezek 38:22; Sirach 39:29). Overall, the imagery suggests massive boulder-like objects thrown about; the breakup of the mountains, etc, on earth is a fitting symbol for the breakdown and end of the current Age (6:14ff).

Even more important is the specific symbolism of the islands and mountains—both represent the nations and their power on earth. The association of the nations with islands goes back to Old Testament tradition (Psalm 72:10; Zeph 2:11; cf. also Sirach 47:16; 1 Macc 11:38). An island, as a protected location with direct access to the sea, could serve as an effective center of power, even the basis for an empire (ancient Crete being a notable example). Rome’s power, too, largely depended upon its control of the sea. A mountain as a symbol of (earthly) power is perhaps even more obvious. As previously noted, many cities in the ancient Near East were situated on hill-tops or elevated mounds, which likewise gave the city (and its rulers) protection and the opportunity to extend control over the surrounding populations. The great city “Babylon” is associated with seven mountains (or hills), identified with the seven heads of the Sea-creature, in 17:9 (to be discussed). Thus, the fall of cities could quite properly, and appropriately, be described in terms of a falling/crumbling mountain.

As in the fourth and fifth visions (vv. 9, 11; cf. also 9:20-21), humankind, faced with the Judgment, insults God (vb blasfhme/w). This suggests that, even up to the very end, people have the opportunity to repent and turn to God, but apparently none do; rather, their reaction serves to confirm their wicked nature, and that they are deserving of punishment.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the complex set of visions, interpretations, and visionary poetry that makes up the announcement of the Fall of Babylon (in chapters 17-18). We will seek to keep in mind throughout the place of these chapters in the overall context of the vision-cycle we have been studying.

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November 10: Revelation 16:12-16

Revelation 16:12-21

In the previous note, we examined the first five bowl-visions (vv. 1-11), all of which involve the symbolism of the Sea-creature from the visions in chapter 13. The matrix of images of Sea, creature from the Sea, and its kingdom, symbolizes the forces of darkness and evil as they are manifest in the earthly kingdoms and centers of power—that is, the nations, their governments and rulers. The Roman Empire of the late-first century is the most immediate point of reference, but the symbolism extends beyond this, as the next two visions in the cycle make clear. In fact, the cycle as a whole makes use of the three different sets of symbols to depict the same event: the great end-time Judgment of the nations:

    • The Sea and Sea-creature, incorporating traditional motifs of the Egyptian Plagues—Visions 1-5
    • The Nations gathering as armies for battle in a single location, traditional imagery deriving from the nation-oracles in the Prophets—Vision 6
    • Babylon and the “great city” as a symbol for the Nations—Vision 7

Today’s note will explore the sixth vision (vv. 12-16).

Revelation 16:12-16: Vision 6

“And the sixth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the great river Perat [i.e. Euphrates], and its water was dried out, (so) that the way might be made ready for the kings (coming) from the rising of the sun [i.e. from the east].” (v. 12)

The initial imagery of this vision, describing the effect of the “plague” poured out, brings together two Judgment motifs from the prior visions: (1) judgment upon the Sea and its waters, and (2) the burning heat of the Sun. The expression a)po\ a)natolh=$ h(li/ou (“from the rising up of the sun”) is often translated blandly as “from the east”; however, this obscures the symbolism by omitting the specific reference to the sun (h%lio$), which featured prominently in the prior vision (#5). The drying up of the river (potamo/$) reflects the imagery in vision #3, where the rivers and waters of the earth are turned into blood. In discussing that vision (cf. the previous note), I argued that the rivers and fountains symbolized the manifestation of the Sea (its waters) upon the earth—that is, a manifestation of the forces of evil and darkness in the earthly kingdoms (i.e. of the nations). The Euphrates (Heb. tr*P=, P®ra¾, Akkadian Purattu) was the greatest of the rivers in the Ancient Near East, in relation to the people of Israel and Palestine-Syria. Its title here as the “great river” reflects this, but also its parallel with Babylon as the “great city”. In neither instance should the place-name be taken as the specific geographical location where an actual event will take place; they are symbols, like almost every other visionary detail in the book of Revelation.

The drying out of the river is likely meant as an allusion to the parting of the Egyptian Reed-sea, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land (Exod 14:21-31; 15:19, etc); the immediate references to the Egyptian Plagues (in visions 1-5) makes this all the more likely. If so, it is a kind of reversal of the imagery—instead of the People of God, it is the wicked Nations that cross over the waters. However, in the Exodus narrative, the effected sea also serves to bring judgment upon Egypt (i.e. the Nations); here, too, the crossing ultimately results in the Nations experiencing the final Judgment. For earlier Old Testament references to a ‘parting’ of the Euphrates, cf. Isa 11:15-16; also Zech 10:10-11; 2/4 Esdras 13:43-47.

A bit more needs to be said about the direction of the “rising of the sun” (the east). The Euphrates formed the eastern boundary of the Promised Land, in its ideal or fullest extent. It also served as the eastern border of the Roman Empire (with Persia). At the time of the book of Revelation, in the late-first century A.D., the Parthians were the rival power for Rome across the eastern border. Some commentators have thought that these “kings of the East” cross the Euphrates to help bring about the fall of Babylon (i.e. Rome). While this is possible, based on the interpretation given in 17:15-17, it is unlikely to be what the vision here signifies. The “east” may indicate a foreign aspect to the nations, implying danger and the threat of invasion, but I believe here it more properly serves as a way of extending the symbolism to include all the nations (even those beyond the limits of the Roman Empire). For the people of Israel, the “Sea” denoted the west; so, too, for believers in Asia Minor, the great sea was the Mediterranean, to the west, and its waters were the effective domain of Rome. By contrast, the waters of the Euphrates denote the east, and the extension eastward allows the vision to encompass all the nations and peoples known at the time.

It may also be possible that the imagery here alludes to traditions associated with Nero and his return. After Nero’s death (apparent suicide) in 68 A.D., rumors and legends began circulating that he was still alive and would return. Many commentators feel that the motif of the Sea-creature’s head that was apparently slain and then restored to life largely derives from this same tradition (cf. the earlier note on 13:3); this will be discussed further in the notes on chapter 17. One version of the Nero legend envisioned him returning from the land of the Parthians, crossing the Euphrates with an army to regain control of the Empire (cf. Sibylline Oracles 4:119-124, 138-139; 5:361-365; Koester, pp. 658, 665).

“And I saw, out of the mouth of the Fabulous Creature, and out of the mouth of the wild animal and out of the mouth of the false-foreteller, three unclean spirits (appearing) as frogs—for they are spirits of little daimons, doing signs which travel out upon the kings of the whole inhabited (world) to bring them together into the battle of the great day of God the All-mighty.” (vv. 13-14)

It is fascinating how, which the the unfolding of the vision, the symbolism of the Dragon and Sea/Earth-creatures (of chapters 12-13) opens up, revealing something of its true significance. This opening up is depicted literally, in the vision, by the opening of the mouths of the three creatures, which also demonstrates the chain of relationship between the three:

    • “Fabulous Creature” (Dragon) =>
      • “Wild Animal” (Sea Creature) =>
        • “False Prophet” (Earth Creature)

Here the Earth-creature—that “wild animal” that comes up out of the Earth—is referred to as a false prophet (yeudoprofh/th$, “false foreteller”), effectively summarizing his Prophet-like working of miracles and wonders (13:13-15). His power comes from the Sea-creature who, in turn, receives his power from the Dragon (Satan). And, indeed, out of the Earth-creature’s mouth come three “unclean spirits”, also referred to as daimons (Greek dai/mwn), in the fully negative sense (from the Jewish/Christian standpoint) of evil spirit-beings opposed to God. The appearance of these spirits (pneu/mata) as frogs may be another allusion to the Egyptian Plagues (Exod 8:1-7); however, frogs often served as a negative or ambivalent image, sometimes specifically associated with deception (cf. Koester, p. 658).

Certainly, the spirits perform a deceiving role, so as to bring (or lure) all of the nations together. This is expressed here in the vision from two different vantage points. First, it would seem that the intent of the evil creatures is to gather all of the nations to make war against God. At the same time, however, God Himself makes us of this, allowing the deception to occur, so that all of the nations will be gathered together in one location, where He will be able to judge them all together. This is the significance of the compound expression “battle of the great day of God”, as an allusion to the Old Testament prophetic motif of the “Day of YHWH”, referring to the time when God (YHWH) will bring judgment/punishment upon a nation. The great oracle in Joel 3 depicts a judgment of the nations collectively, when God gathers them into the valley of Judgment (v. 2). That oracle also describes this in military terms, i.e. the judgment of the nations as a defeat in battle. The earlier Judgment-vision in 14:14-20 clearly alludes to Joel 3:13ff, and the same oracle is almost certainly in view here as well, perhaps along with similar nation-oracles elsewhere in the Prophets (cf. below).

“‘See! I come as (one) stealing [i.e. a thief]! Happy (is) the (one) staying awake and keeping watch over his garments, (so) that he should not walk about naked and (people) look at his shame!'” (v. 15)

The vision is interrupted suddenly, and abruptly, by a declaration from the exalted Jesus, echoing the one earlier in 3:3. Some commentators feel that it is out place here, but it effectively serves to increase the suspense in the narrative, as well as anticipating the vision of Jesus’ return in chapter 19. Why it would occur just at this point in the book, and here in the vision-cycle, is unclear. In terms of the visionary narrative, it occurs just prior to the final Judgment of the nations (vv. 17-21; chaps. 17-18; 19:1-3, 11-21); the following parallelism may be noted:

Expectation Fulfillment
  • Exhortation to believers to watch over their garments (i.e. for the wedding feast), 16:15
  • Anticipation of the great battle where God judges the Nations, 16:16
  • Vision of believers with their pure garments for the wedding feast in heaven, 19:1-10
  • The great battle when God, through His Anointed (the exalted Jesus) judges the Nations, 19:11-21

The language of this declaration is traditional, going back to the eschatological sayings and parables of Jesus (Mark 13:32-37 par; Matt 24:42-44; 1 Thess 5:2-4ff). On the eschatological use of wedding/marriage imagery, cf. especially Matthew 25:1-13).

“And he brought them together into the place being called, in Hebrew, Har-Megiddon.” (v. 16)

Although the gathering of the nations was done by the “False Prophet” in verse 15, here the subject is perhaps better understood as God, since ultimately it is He who brings them into the place of His Judgment. The Greek name for this place (to/po$) is, according to the best reading,  (Armagedw/n (Harmagedœ¡n). The wide number of variant readings suggests that the exact meaning of the word was not well understood by early readers and scribes. It is best viewed as a transliteration of the Hebrew [/]oDg]m=-rh^, “hill of Megiddo”. Some commentators suggest instead a transliteration of du@m)-rh^, which could be translated as “mountain of assembly”; this would certainly fit the scene of the gathering of the nations, however the reference to the city of Megiddo is much more likely. In this case, translating rh^ as “mountain” would be misleading, since Megiddo was not located on a natural hilltop, but on a wide plain. Most Near Eastern cities, however, even if not on a natural hill, were still elevated on a mound (tell) built up over successive levels of occupation, and ancient Megiddo would have been a such a fortified hill-site, overlooking the plain. Almost certainly, the immediate reference here is to Zechariah 12:11, where the plain of Megiddo (form of the name with the final n, /oDg]m=, M®giddôn) is mentioned in the context of a great battle in which the nations are judged and defeated (vv. 1-9).

Interestingly, there is here no description of the Judgment being carried out; rather, the stage is set for the fulfillment of this vision in chapter 19. This follows the pattern of the prior two seven-vision cycles, in which there was an interval between the sixth and seventh visions—a narrative device to build suspense, but also serving to connect the various visions, locking them together and allowing them to unfold in greater detail with different motifs and sets of images included. Here, between the sixth vision and its fulfillment, we have the intervening announcement of the fall of the “great city” Babylon (chapters 17-18). This announcement is an extension of the seventh vision (vv. 17-21), which will be discussed in the next daily note.

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November 9: Revelation 16:1-11

Revelation 16:1-11

The actual cycle of seven bowl-visions occurs in chapter 16, the drama of the scene having been built up in the prior two chapters, especially the vision in chap. 15. The seven Messengers (Angels) hold seven “plagues” (plhgai/)—disasters sent by God which are to “strike” the earth. The motif of the bowls (“offering-dishes”, fia/lai) is related to the image of wine poured out on the earth as a symbol of Judgment (cf. the previous note). The two sets of images are combined, so that the “plagues” are poured out of the dishes; the historical tradition of the Egyptian Plagues (Exodus 7-12) very much influences the imagery of these visions.

The earlier trumpet-cycle of visions also depicted the great Judgment upon the earth; however, in that cycle, the focus was on the wickedness of humankind generally, while here the bowl-visions more properly emphasize the judgment of the nations. In particular, the first five visions are centered on the domain and influence of the Sea-creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) from chapter 13, as was the vision in 14:9-11. Note the thematic structure of the first four visions:

    • Vision 1: A painful mark upon all human beings who received the “mark” of the Sea-creature
      • Vision 2: Judgment upon the Sea—turned to blood
      • Vision 3: Judgment upon the Sea (its waters) as they exist on/in the earth—also turned to blood
    • Vision 4: A burning of all human beings (i.e. those who ‘belong’ to the Sea-creature)

The outer visions 1 and 4 target humankind as those belonging to the Sea-creature, while the inner visions 2 and 3 directly target the Sea itself.

Verse 1

“And I heard a great voice out of the shrine saying to the seven Messengers: ‘Lead (yourselves) under [i.e. go away] and pour out onto the earth the seven (thing)s of the impulse of God (that are) to strike!'” (v. 1)

As the Messengers, in these visions of chaps. 15-16, repeatedly come out of the heavenly sanctuary (nao/$), now a “great voice” is heard (also in verse 17). Since no other Messenger is mentioned, presumably it is God Himself now who speaks, giving the command for the Judgment to begin. In terms of the action that is involved, “pouring out”, this continues the wine motif, confirmed by the use again of the noun qumo/$ (“impulse”) associating the wine-cup/bowl with the anger of God and His desire to punish wickedness. It is this divine anger that is “poured out” upon humankind in the Judgment; for more on the traditional nature of this idiom, cf. its use in the Prophets (Psalm 69:24; Jer 7:20; 10:25; Ezek 7:8; Zeph 3:8; Koester, p. 646), in addition to Joel 3:13ff and the previously cited wine references (note on 14:9-13).

Verse 2: First Vision

“And the first (Messenger) went from (there) and poured out his offering-dish onto the earth—and there came to be a bad and evil wound (left) upon (all) the men holding the engraved (mark) of the wild animal and kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] its image.” (v. 2)

As in the vision of 14:9ff, the first bowl-vision (and first “plague”) is directed at all people who worship the Sea-creature (chap. 13) and who receive its engraved ‘mark’ (xa/ragma) indicating that they belong to it. The punishment matches the sin—they receive a painful ‘mark’ (e%lko$) on their body. The noun e%lko$ indicates a wound or cut, possibly related to the verb e%lkw, signifying a pulling or tearing of the skin, etc. It can refer specifically to a ‘wound’ that is the result of disease or illness—a festering sore, ulcer, abcess, etc. While this alludes to the plague in Exodus 9:8-12 (e%lko$ being used in the LXX, v. 9), it is the parallel with the “mark” of the Sea-creature that is especially being emphasized.

Verses 3-7: Second and Third Visions

“And the second (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the sea—and it came to be blood, (as of) a dead (person), and every soul of life [i.e. living soul] died off, (all) the (thing)s in the sea. And the third (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the rivers and the fountains of waters—and it (also) came to be blood (there). And I heard the Messenger of the waters saying: ‘Just are you, the (One) being and the (One who) was, the right/pure (One), that you judged these (thing)s, (in) that [i.e. because] they poured out the blood of holy (one)s and foretellers [i.e. prophets]—and (now) you have given them blood to drink, (for) they are brought (into the balance)!’ And I heard the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] saying (in return): ‘Yes, Lord God the All-mighty, true and just are your judgments!'” (vv. 3-7)

Even as human beings were given a painful wound for their worship of the Sea-creature, so the very Sea itself is given a similar ‘wound’ and turned into blood—the thick, congealed blood of a “dead person”. As a result, all living beings in the sea die off. While this vision refers to a plague upon the natural world (echoing the plague on the Nile, etc, in Exodus 7:14-21), it is clear that the symbolism properly applies to the wickedness of the human government of the world—in other words, the earth as the domain of the Sea-creature. I would interpret the two visions here as follows:

    • Vision 2: The Sea—the dark, chaotic realm of evil, out of which the Sea-creature rises
    • Vision 3: The rivers and fountains = the presence of the Sea (waters) on/in the Earth, i.e. the domain of the Earth-creature, who acts on behalf of the Sea-creature

The reference to the “Messenger of the waters” is parallel to the Messenger controlling the fire in 14:18—both reflect the ancient cosmological idea that the natural features and phenomena of the world are controlled by divine/heavenly beings, and, indeed, the visions of Revelation make considerable use of this idea within the drama of the narrative. However, the message of this Angel refers not to the “waters” as a natural feature, but as a symbolic manifestation of the evil power of the “Sea” in its functioning power on earth. According to the visionary logic of the scenes in chapter 13, this refers to the domain of the Earth-creature who works on behalf of the Sea-creature. It is said that “they” poured out the blood of holy ones and prophets, meaning that they persecuted and killed the people of God—both the earlier ones of Israel, and, subsequently, believers in Christ (cf. Matt 23:31, 37 par). The end-time persecution in the period of distress is primarily in view (7:14; chaps. 12-13). Who are “they”? The worldly rulers and powers—specifically the Roman imperial government and its local/regional vassals, though it could just as well apply to any wicked earthly government throughout history. As in the first vision, the punishment here fits the sin: they poured out blood, and now blood has been poured out for them to drink. This is also expressed by the adjective a&cio$, rather difficult to render in English; I have tried to preserve the fundamental meaning of the idiom, that of something brought into balance, i.e. weighed out so that its value and worth is determined. Here it is the scales of justice that are in view, the wickedness of human beings weighed out, balanced by a proper and proportionate punishment.

In response to the Angel’s message, the altar in heaven speaks. Again I translate the word qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, even though the altar in the book of Revelation is generally understood to be the altar of incense (not animal sacrifice) that resides in the Temple sanctuary. However, in the fifth seal-vision (6:9ff), the idea of sacrifice is implied by the presence underneath the altar of the souls (of believers) who have been slain, and the emphasis here is also on believers being put to death by the wicked. Those souls in the seal-vision speak out in a loud voice, and the response from the altar here likely is meant to echo the earlier scene.

Verses 8-9: Fourth Vision

“And the fourth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the sun—and it was given to it to burn the men (on earth) in fire. And the men were burned (with) a great burning, and (yet) they insulted the name of God, the (One) holding e)cousi/a [i.e. power/authority] over these (thing)s that strike (them), and they did not change (their) mind to give Him honor.” (vv. 8-9)

To the realms of Earth (i.e. the inhabited world of humankind) and Sea (the dark, turbulent world of evil) is now added that of the Sun. Again, on the surface this refers to a feature of the natural world; however, in the visionary logic of the narrative, here it more properly signifies the heavenly realm of light, righteousness, etc. In particular, it is a powerful image for the fire of God’s holy Judgment—i.e., the traditional motif of fire from heaven. This aspect of the Judgment has been expressed a number of ways (fire from the altar of incense, etc); now it relates to the natural heat human beings feel on earth from the sun—the sun itself serves as a vehicle for God’s fiery Judgment. The response of the afflicted population, as described here, could be taken to imply that humankind still had the opportunity to repent and turn to God, even after the Judgment had begun. In this respect the vision resembles the fifth and sixth of the earlier trumpet-cycle (chap. 9, note esp. verses 20-21).

Verses 10-11: Fifth Vision

“And the fifth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the ruling-seat of the wild animal—and its kingdom came to be darkened, and they squeezed their tongues out of the labor (they felt), and (still) they insulted the God of heaven (from) out of their labors and out of their wounds, (but) they did not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] out of their works!” (vv. 10-11)

As noted above, these visions specifically target the domain of the Sea-creature, but here the point is made explicit, the plague being poured out directly on the ruling-seat (qro/no$, throne) of the creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on). Back in 2:13, the city of Pergamum was said to be the place “where the ruling-seat of the Satan is”, due to its importance as a provincial center, the prominence of the imperial cult in the city, and, most importantly, because the believer Antipas was put to death there. All of these factors also serve to inform the symbolic domain of the Sea-creature (chap. 13), even though that domain cannot be limited to any specific geographical location. The Roman Empire and the Imperial cult is the most immediate point of reference for the symbolism, but, as we will see in the sixth and seventh visions, the imagery is considerably broader than the historic Roman rule of the first centuries.

The darkening that comes upon the creature’s kingdom is another direct allusion to the Exodus traditions and the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 10:21-29). Darkness was also a traditional image associated with the judgment to come upon nations and people on the “Day of YHWH” (Joel 2:10; Amos 5:18; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7-9) and was a common motif signifying (end-time) judgment (Mark 13:34 par; 15:33 par; Rev 6:12); moreover, any unusual darkness could be seen as an omen portending a coming disaster (cf. Koester, pp. 450, 649). Verse 10b-11 refers to the people in the Sea-creature’s kingdom, i.e. the human beings under its control, who belong to it and venerate the image, etc. It is not immediately clear what about the darkness causes the reaction of “squeezing” (or “chewing”) the tongue; most likely, it marks the cumulation of the experience of hardship and suffering in the midst of the Judgment. The noun po/no$ is used, which fundamentally means “labor, work, toil”, here more properly the suffering and pain that comes from hard labor. This hardship, along with the painful “mark” (e%lko$) on their bodies (cf. above), prompts humankind again to insult God (vb blasfhme/w). It would seem that people still have the opportunity to repent, but apparently none do. There is a bit of wordplay here involving the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) and the plural nouns po/noi (“labors”) and e&rga (“works”):

    • People insult God “out of” their labors (po/noi), i.e. their hardship and suffering
    • They do not repent “out of” their works (e&rga), i.e. their wicked behavior

The final two visions in the cycle (6 and 7) bring the scene of the great Judgment to a close, depicting the same judgment of the nations with a different set of symbols. We will explore these in the next daily note.

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November 7: Revelation 15:5-8

Revelation 15:5-8

The drama and suspense of the onset of the great Judgment builds in this second heavenly scene (15:5-8). In the previous note, we examined the scene of the People of God (believers) standing upon the crystal-clear sea, in front of God’s throne (implied), singing a song of praise to God for his deliverance. The sea was “mixed with fire”, indicating the punishment-aspect of the Judgment and anticipating the Bowl-cycle of visions. The seven Messengers (Angels) holding these “plagues” (plhgai/) were already mentioned in verse 1, along with an announcement of the Judgment.

Verses 5-6

“And with [i.e. after] these (thing)s, I saw—and the shrine of the tent of witness in the heaven was opened, and the seven Messengers holding the seven (thing)s to strike came out of the shrine, having been sunk [i.e. clothed] in clean (and) bright linen (garments) fastened around the chest (as they stood with) golden belts.”

The seven heavenly Messengers (Angels) are described here in some detail, both in terms of the setting of their appearance and the clothing they wear. Again, from a literary standpoint, this allows the suspense of the scene to build. The shining white (linen) garments with golden belts matches the earlier description of the exalted Jesus (1:13-14); it is traditional imagery, depicting purity, holiness, and heavenly splendor, applicable to the righteous in heaven (3:4; 7:14; 19:8), and, more broadly, to the People of God in their heavenly aspect (4:4; 19:14).

As in the visions of chapter 14, these Messengers come out of the Temple sanctuary (nao/$, “shrine”), the Temple being used as a symbol for God’s dwelling (in heaven); it also represents the place where the People of God gather to worship. The altar (of incense) is in the Temple sanctuary, and its fire symbolizes the end-time Judgment (8:3-5; 14:10-11, 18). The reference to the Temple as the “tent of the witness” is one of several images from the Exodus narratives that have been introduced into the Judgment scene here. In verse 3, the song sung by the People of God is called “the song of Moses”, referring to the song of praise, attributed to Moses, set after Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt and crossing the Sea (Exod 15:1-18). The seven Messengers are said to hold plhgai/, literally things which strike, often in the sense of disease or natural disaster that ‘strikes’ humankind. The English “plague” derives from Greek plhgh/ (pl¢g¢¡), and the Bowl-visions certainly reflect the historical tradition of the Plagues of Egypt (Exod 7-12). As for the “tent of witness”, it is a reference to the portable tent-shrine (‘tabernacle’) of the Exodus/Wilderness period. More properly called the “tent of (the) appointed (meeting)” (du@om lh#a)), the name “tent of the witness” is better rendered from the Hebrew as “tent of the agreement” (td%u@h* lh#a), Num 17:7-8 [Heb 22-23]), in reference to the tablet(s) recording the binding agreement (covenant) established between YHWH and Israel, stored in the golden chest that served as the “throne” of YHWH in the shrine. Both the tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and later Temple were built after a similar pattern, and served a common purpose for the People of God (Israel); however, the image of the tent-shrine is more appropriate here, in terms of its (Mosaic) connection with the “plagues” of Egypt, etc, but also because of its more immediate association with the cloud/fire of God’s presence. This is alluded to by the image of the smoke (kapno/$) of His presence that fills the shrine in this scene, also serving as an image for the smoke of His fiery anger.

Verses 7-8

“And one out of the four living (being)s gave to the seven Messengers seven offering-dishes [fia/lai] being full of the (angry) impulse [qumo/$] of God, the (One) living into the Ages of the Ages. And the shrine was made full of smoke out of the splendor of God and out of His power, and no one was able to come into the shrine until the seven (thing)s to strike (held by) the seven Messengers should be completed.”

The parallelism of these two sets of images is clear enough. The offering-dishes are filled with the angry impulse of God (i.e. to punish wickedness), and the sanctuary is filled (same verb gem[i/z]w) with the smoke of His splendor and power. The Greek word fia/lh generally refers to a broad, flat dish such as that used in religious offerings, particularly libations—i.e. offerings of wine. This fits perfectly with the earlier image of the Judgment as a cup of wine to be poured out upon the earth (14:8, 10, 19-20); there the same word qumo/$ (“impulse”) was used, referring to God’s anger and desire to punish wickedness. As noted above, the “smoke” (kapno/$) is a dual-image, signifying both the presence of God in the sanctuary and His anger which will be expressed as a fiery Judgment. The final statement in verse 8 again draws upon the ancient Tent-shrine traditions, limiting access to the sanctuary, so that even the officiating priests could not enter (Exod 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron 5:13-14; 7:1-2; cf. also Lev 16:13, etc; Koester, p. 645-6).

The Messengers already hold the seven “plagues” which will strike the earth; the motif of the offering-dishes is a literary device which gives to the vision-cycle a powerful dramatic and ritual dimension. It also blends together two sets of images for depicting the Judgment: (1) the Exodus traditions with the Plagues of Egypt, and (2) the wine imagery of chapter 14. The sudden appearance of the “living beings”, which echoes back to the heavenly throne-vision of chapters 4-5, is also a dramatic device, but one which enhances the symbolism here in two respects: (1) it plays on the theme of God in the sanctuary as “the Living One”, and (2) it provides a subtle contrast to the Sea and Earth creatures of chapter 13, and the ‘living’ image of the Sea-creature that causes humankind to worship and obey the creature. The first five visions of this Judgment-cycle (16:1-11) are directed specifically against the world as the domain of the Sea-creature. These will be discussed in the next daily note.

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November 6: Revelation 15:1-4

Revelation 15-16

Chapters 15-16 comprise the vision-cycle of seven “bowls” (fia/lai), the third of the three major seven-vision cycles in the book of Revelation. All three variously depict the great Judgment that is to come upon the earth at the end time. The first cycle of seven seals (chap. 6) primarily describe the period of distress (qli/yi$) which precedes the return of Jesus and the great Judgment; however the last two seals, in my view, refer more properly to the time of Judgment (6:12-17; 8:1-2). The second cycle of seven trumpets (chaps. 8-9), by contrast, provide a vivid description of the Judgment on earth. This final cycle of seven bowls presents the earthly Judgment again, in even more dramatic terms. We can see the parallel (and interlocking) structure of these cycles:

Seal-Cycle
Trumpet-Cycle
Bowl-Cycle
  • Vision of the Lamb (chap. 5)
  • The period of distress (Seals 1-5, 6:1-11)
  • The People of God (144,000, 7:1-8ff)
  • The Judgment (Seals 6-7, 6:12-17; 8:1-2)
  • Vision of the Lamb (7:9-17; 8:1)
  • The period of distress (chap. 7; 8:3)
  • The People of God
    (144,000, chap. 7 + 11)
  • The Judgment (Trumpets, 8:3-10:7; 11:15)
  • Vision [of the Lamb] (11:15ff + 14:1ff)
  • The period of distress (chaps. 12-13)
  • The People of God (144,000, 14:1-5ff)
  • The Judgment (Bowls, 14:6-16:20 + chaps. 17-18ff)

The Bowl-cycle is connected with a separate visionary theme and set of symbols—the fall of the great city Babylon, and the harvest (wine-press) imagery for the Judgment. Indeed, the latter vision-set brackets the Bowl-cycle, forming a comprehensive depiction of the Great Judgment:

Revelation 15:1-4

“And I saw another sign in the heaven, great and wondrous: seven Messengers holding the last seven (thing)s to strike—(last in) that the (angry) impulse of God is completed in them.” (v. 1)

The language here matches that of 12:1, speaking of a “great sign” (shmei=on me/ga) visible in the heavens. There it referred to a vision of the People of God (the Woman), in the context of a great conflict (with the Dragon). Here in 15:1ff, by contrast, the conflict for the People of God (believers, children of the Woman [12:17]) is over—they have been delivered, with the coming of the Son of Man (Jesus, 14:14ff), and now the great Judgment for the people on earth will begin (14:17ff).

This Judgment, to be unleashed by the heavenly Messengers (cf. the previous note), is described as a set of seven plhgai/. The noun plhgh/ fundamentally means something (a blow, etc) that is struck. It can refer specifically to disease or natural disaster—i.e. something that strikes humankind—and, according to the ancient religious mindset, it is God who strikes the blow. Here, of course, it is no ordinary disease or disaster—rather it represents God’s great (and final) punishment upon the wickedness of humankind. Almost certainly, the historical tradition of the “Plagues” of Egypt (Exod 7-12) is in view.

For those who would (attempt to) read the visions of Revelation in a strict chronological sense, the punishments of the Bowl-visions are events which occur, in sequence, after those of the Trumpet-visions have taken place. While this is true in terms of the literary and narrative sequence of the visions, I believe it is a gross mistake to read them as a concrete sequence of specific, actual events. The cyclical nature of the visions (cf. above), and the way the symbolism is developed, would seem to make this absolutely clear. Moreover, the language here in verse 1 indicates the significance of the adjective “last” (e&sxato$) in context: it refers to the completion (vb tele/w) of God’s desire to punish wickedness—that is to say, His desire (qumo/$, “impulse”, 14:8, 10, 19) is finally realized and fulfilled through the Judgment.

“And I saw (something) as a (crystal) clear sea having been mixed with fire, and the (one)s (hav)ing been victorious (from) out of the wild animal—and out of its image and out of the number of its name—having (now) stood upon the (crystal) clear sea, holding harps of God.” (v. 2)

This “crystal-clear” (u(a/lino$) sea refers back to the heavenly throne-vision in chapter 4 (v. 6), and generally derives from Old Testament and Jewish tradition, especially the vision of Ezekiel (1:22, 26; cf. 1 Enoch 4:2; 2 Enoch 4:2; Koester, p. 631), and the ancient cosmological idea of God (El-YHWH) enthroned (or standing) over the primeval waters (Gen 1:6-7; Ps 104:2-3; 148:4, etc); cf. also the clear blue pavement in the theophany of Exod 24:10. The image played a significant role in Jewish mystical tradition, the visionary-ascent (Merkabah/Hekhalot) traditions, which included the idea that the one who ‘ascends’ might mistakenly think that he was in danger of being overcome by a flood of water—when, in fact, it is not physical water at all, but a manifestation of the heavenly splendor of God’s throne (b. „agigah 14b, Tosefta; Greater Hekhalot chap. 19).

The earthly “Sea” (qa/lassa), like the primeval waters, is dark, turbulent, and menacing, serving as a traditional symbol of chaos, death, and evil. This is certainly the idea in the chap. 13 visions, whereby the fabulous “wild animal” (qhri/on) comes up out of the Sea, in the presence (and under the influence of) the Dragon, who stands on the shore of the Sea (12:18). Here, by contrast, the “Sea” is clear, and believers are able to stand upon it without danger of being harmed. The preposition e)pi/ (“upon”) could mean upon the edge or shore of the sea, in which case there is a parallel with 12:18; however, I think it very possible that they stand on the surface of the sea, possibly alluding to the Exodus tradition of the People of God passing through (or over) the sea as if on dry land (Exod 14:22; 15:19).

Overall, this scene parallels that of 14:1-6, describing the People of God in terms of believers who resisted the influence of the evil Sea-creature during the period of distress (chap. 13). Here, too, believers hold heavenly harps and sing, after having been delivered from suffering, persecution, and the coming Judgment. Again the verb nika/w (“be victorious [over]”) is used, as a characteristic of the faithful believer (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 12:11)—i.e. victorious over the Sea-creature and its evil worldly power. The preposition e)k (“out of”) should probably be taken literally here, according to the imagery—i.e. believers are able to resist and escape from “out of” the clutches of the “wild animal”.

“And they sing the song of Moshe the slave [i.e. servant] of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying:
‘Great and wondrous (are) your works, Lord God the All-mighty!
Just and true (are) your ways, King of the Nations!
Who will not fear (you), Lord, and give honor to your Name?
(in) that [i.e. because] you are holy,
(so) that all the nations will come and kiss toward [i.e. worship] (you) in your sight,
(in) that your just (action)s are made to shine forth!'” (vv. 3-4)

We should not think of two different songs being sung; rather, two different motifs and strands of tradition are brought together to symbolize the “song” that believers sing. It is fundamentally a song of salvation, praising God for His deliverance of His people. The “song of Moses” refers to the ancient poem of Exodus 15:1-18, set after the Israelites’ escape from the Egyptians (the wicked worldly power of the time), passing through the Sea to safety (including the destruction of the Egyptian forces). Similarly, believers escape from the power of the Sea-creature, effectively passing through that “Sea” (note esp. the wording in Exod 15:13). The “song of the Lamb” praises God for the deliverance He brings through the person and work of Jesus (his death and resurrection), and reflects the close connection between the redeemed, faithful believers and the Lamb in Rev 7:9-17 and 14:1-5.

The actual song here in vv. 3-4 draws upon the traditional language of Old Testament poetry, both in the Psalms (22:28; 35:10; 47:8; 72:1; 86:10; 89:8; 98:2; 111:2-4; 139:14, etc; Koester, pp. 632-3), and elsewhere in Scripture, including the great ancient songs attributed to Moses (Exod 15:1-18; Deut 32:1-43). It may be viewed as a hymn with two parallel strophes, each with a similar outline:

    • Statement of the greatness/holiness of God (lines 1, 4)
      • His authority over the nations and their submission (lines 2, 5)
    • The Person (“Name”) and works of God are reason to give Him honor (lines 3, 6)

The title “King of the Nations”, in particular, emphasizes the impending defeat of the Sea-creature, the fall of the Great City (Babylon), and the final Judgment of the nations. God is depicted in his traditional role (frequent in the Psalms) as Judge, whose judgments are just (di/kaio$) and true (a)lhqino/$). The idea that the nations will come to God and worship Him is part of traditional Jewish eschatological and Messianic thought, going back to key oracles in the Prophets (esp. deutero-Isaiah, chaps. 40-66)—at the end time, the nations will be subdued and will come to Jerusalem to give homage to God and His people. For more on this subject, and a summary of references, see the article on “Jews and Gentiles and the People of God”.

The Sea here is said to be crystal-clear and yet also “mixed with fire“. This symbolizes the two aspects of the end-time Judgment:

    • The purity of believers and their deliverance—being gathered together at the coming of the Son of Man (return of Jesus), described in the grain harvest vision of 14:14-16 (cf. Mark 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:14-17, etc).
    • The wickedness of the world (non-believers) and their punishment—traditionally depicted, as here in Revelation, through the image of fire.

The fiery Judgment is presented in the Bowl-vision cycle, beginning with the heavenly scene in vv. 5-8, which I will examine in the next daily note.

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November 5: Revelation 14:14-20 (continued)

Revelation 14:14-20, continued

In the previous note, we examined the scene of the grain harvest (vv. 14-16), in which the “Son of Man” (the exalted Jesus) performs the act of harvesting, at God’s command (by way of a Messenger). This is a depiction (for the first time in the visions of the book) of the end-time return of Jesus to earth. His coming (parousia) ushers in the great Judgment, and the scene in vv. 14-16 certainly indicates the moment of the Judgment and its beginning. However, the grain harvest itself primarily signifies the gathering of believers at the time of Jesus’ return, and is thus a positive image of salvation. It is with the grape harvest, in vv. 17-20, that we have a depiction of the other side of the Judgment—the punishment of the wicked.

Verses 17-20: The Grape Harvest

“And another Messenger came out of the shrine th(at is) in heaven, and he (also) holding a sharp plucking-tool [i.e. sickle].” (v. 17)

The initial description of this scene closely matches that in vv. 14-16, with a Messenger acting in place of the “Son of Man”. Like the Messenger who gave the command in that scene, the one who conducts the harvest here comes from “out of the shrine [nao/$]”, that is, the sanctuary of the heavenly ‘Temple’ where God dwells. Here the location in heaven is specified. That a Messenger acts (instead of Jesus himself) perhaps reflects the traditional Angelic association with the Judgment upon the earth. The idea that natural forces and powers were controlled by heavenly/divine beings is a fundamental part of ancient religious thought. Throughout the book of Revelation, heavenly Messengers (a&ggeloi) deliver the Judgment (in its earthly aspect), both in terms of natural disaster/upheaval and pain/suffering for humankind. This will be depicted vividly in the Bowl-visions of chapters 15-16 (to be discussed).

“And another Messenger [came] out of the place of (ritual) slaughter [i.e. altar] holding e)cousi/a upon the fire, and he gave voice [i.e. shouted] with a great voice to the (one) holding the sharp plucking-tool, declaring: ‘You must send (out) your sharp plucking-tool and take while ripe the bunches of the vine of the earth, (in) that [i.e. because] her grapes are at the point (of ripeness)!'” (v. 18)

As in the grain harvest scene, another Messenger comes out of the sanctuary with a command (from God the Father) for the harvester to act. This time, the Messenger comes specifically from out of the altar in the sanctuary. I translate the word qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, however it can refer to an altar even when no animal sacrifice is involved. Indeed, the altar in the visions of Revelation is the altar for burning incense (in the sanctuary) rather than that for animal sacrifices (in the Temple courtyard)—cf. 8:3, 5; 9:13; 11:1, but note the possible allusion to sacrifice in 6:9. This Messenger is said to have e)cousi/a over (i.e. authority, the ability to act, etc) “the fire”, i.e. the fire of the altar. This corresponds to the scene in 8:3-5, where an Angel takes fire from the altar and hurls it down to earth; this marks the onset of the great Judgment (portrayed in the Trumpet-vision cycle of chaps. 8-9). Here, the fire has a similar meaning, as a foreshadowing of the Judgment, which likewise will be portrayed in the Bowl-vision cycle (chaps. 15-16).

As with the grain harvest, the grape harvest occurs in the heat of summer at the moment when the grapes are ripe. They must be harvested quickly, as soon as the clusters (bo/trua$) are ripe, otherwise the fruit may be ruined or lost. This is indicated by the language used (vbs truga/w and a)kma/zw), and gives to the Judgment-scene a dramatic sense of suddenness and urgency, as befits the eschatological idiom.

“And the Messenger cast his plucking-tool into the earth and took (fruit) while ripe (from) the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great trough of the (angry) impulse of God. And the trough was tread down outside of the city, and blood came out of the trough (flowing) until (it reached up) to the horses’ bridles, from a thousand and six-hundred stadia (all around).” (vv. 19-20)

The harvest imagery, as a symbol of the end-time Judgment, while traditional, alludes here specifically to Joel 3:13ff; indeed, the command in verse 15 echoes that in Joel 3:13, as does the trough for pressing the wine in vv. 19-20. This pressing, performed by trampling the harvested grapes, was a suitable motif for Divine Judgment in the nation-oracles of Prophets, whereby judgment would come in the form of a people being “trampled” by an enemy (Lam 1:15; Isa 25:10; Zech 10:5, etc). The specific oracle in Joel 3 involves a time of judgment (the “day of YHWH”) for the nations surrounding Israel, viewed collectively. They will be gathered in the “valley of YHWH’s judging [Y§hôš¹¸¹‰, i.e. where YHWH judges]” (verse 1), understood to be a location near Jerusalem, variously identified with the Hinnom, Kidron, or “King’s” valley. In particular, the Hinnom valley, once associated with the vilest of pagan sacrifices (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; Jer 32:35), and called the “valley of slaughter” (Jer 7:31-32; 19:5-6), is probably the location in view. Its subsequent use as a place for burning garbage, caused it to be utilized also as a symbol of the fire of judgment that will consume the wicked. Hebrew <N)h!-ayG@ (gê°-Hinnœm), transliterated in Greek as Ge/enna (English Gehenna), served as a technical term for the punishing fire (Mark 9:43ff; Matt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; Luke 12:5, etc).

The juice from the pressed-grapes in the trough (lhno/$) functions as a two-fold image. First is the ordinary process of producing wine. The wine-cup was a symbol for the wickedness of the great city (“Babylon”), as also of the divine Judgment that comes in response to it (vv. 8, 10, cf. the prior note). In both instances the noun qumo/$ was used, a word I render as “impulse”, that is, the impulse to passionate wickedness or to righteous anger, as the case may be. It is used again here in the latter sense, for the anger (o)rgh/) of God and His desire to punish evil.

The wine-trough is located “outside of the city”. This should be understood, figuratively, in relation to the “great city”, whether identified by the name “Jerusalem”, “Babylon”, or “Sodom”, etc. The immediate reference is to Jerusalem, in light of the prophecy in Joel 3. However, it should not be read as a concrete geographic location any more than the “wine-trough” should be understood as a simple physical object. It is part of a set of symbols meant to depict the great Judgment upon the earth. The same is true of the second aspect of the grape-juice—as an image of blood. Playing upon military imagery, we have the idea of people being ‘trampled’ and slaughtered in battle. It is depicted in extreme, exaggerated terms—as a vast river or lake of blood filling up the valley (on this imagery, cf. Isa 34:3; Ezek 32:5-6; 2 Macc 12:16; 1 Enoch 100:1-3; 2/4 Esdras 15:35-36; Sibylline Oracles 5:372; Koester, p. 625). The significance of the specific number of 1,600 stadia (= about 200 miles) is unclear, beyond as a general way to indicate the vast scope of the carnage. Some manuscripts instead read 1,200 stadia, which is more obviously a symbolic number. Here 1,600 may be meant to indicate a complete coverage of the earth, i.e. its four corners, etc—4 x 4 x 100.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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November 4: Revelation 14:14-20

Revelation 14:14-20

In the third vision of chapter 14, we finally have a depiction of the end-time coming of the “Son of Man” —that is, the return of the exalted Jesus to earth. It had been foreshadowed at several points, including a more direct reference at the beginning of the book (1:7, cf. the note there), but is now described in a vision for the first time. The coming of the Son of Man ushers in the great Judgment, the event being presented here using harvest imagery (introduced in verse 4, cf. the prior note). The harvest marks the end of the growing season, and so serves as a suitable eschatological motif—i.e., for the end of the current Age. The basic act of harvesting—the cutting—is itself an ambiguous symbol. On the one hand, it provides life-giving and sustaining food for the community, and is thus a positive symbol of life. On the other hand, it can be seen as an act of violence, the menacing image of swinging a sharp and dangerous tool, cutting off the life of what has been growing out of the earth.

Both aspects are combined in the use of the harvest as an image of the end-time Judgment, already well-established in early Christian tradition by the time the book of Revelation was written, largely by way of the sayings/parables of Jesus, as well as earlier in the Old Testament Prophets (Joel 3:13ff [cf. below]; Jer 50:16; 51:33; Matt 3:12 par; Mark 4:29; Matt 13:30, 39; cf. also Luke 10:2 par; Jn 4:35, where the eschatological aspect of Jesus’ statements are often overlooked). Here, in Rev 14:14-20, two kinds of harvest are depicted: the grain harvest (vv. 14-16), and the grape harvest (vv. 17-20). They symbolize two aspects of the time of the Judgment, respectively—the salvation of believers and the punishment of the wicked.

Verses 14-16: The Grain Harvest

“And I saw, and see!—a white cloud, and upon the cloud was sitting ‘(one) like a son of man’, holding upon his head a gold wreath and upon his hand a sharp plucking-tool [i.e. sickle]. And another Messenger came out of the shrine, crying out in a great voice to the (one) sitting upon the cloud: ‘You must send (out) your plucking-tool and reap (the summer crop), (in) that [i.e. because] the hour to reap (has) come, (in) that the summer crop of the earth is dried out (for) reaping!’ And the (one) sitting upon the cloud cast his plucking-tool upon the earth, and the (summer crop of the) earth was reaped.”

I have utilizing both “summer crop” and “reap(ing)” in English to convey the fundamental meaning of the verb qeri/zw and related noun qerismo/$. (i.e. the heat of late-summer as the time for reaping). The figure sitting on the cloud, and depicted as the harvester (in that he holds a sickle, dre/panon, plucking/cutting-tool), is identified by way of an allusion (in Greek) to the expression in Daniel 7:13: “one like a son of man” (o%moio$ ui(o\$ a)nqrw/pou). The Daniel reference is the basis for the expression “Son of Man” as the name for an eschatological (and Messianic) figure—a heavenly redeemer figure-type who will appear at the end-time to deliver God’s people and bring about the Judgment. Jesus uses the same expression as a self-reference in many sayings, and, in his eschatological “Son of Man” sayings, identifies himself with the heavenly-deliverer who is to appear at the time of Judgment. For more on this, see Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, the supplementary note on Dan 7:13-14, the earlier article in this series on the eschatological sayings, as well as the series of notes on the Son of Man sayings of Jesus as a whole. The clearest allusion to Daniel 7 is found in two key Synoptic sayings: Mark 13:26-27 par (part of the Eschatological Discourse) and Mark 14:62 par (the Sanhedrin ‘trial’ scene); it is echoed again in Acts 7:55-56, and is part of the imagery surrounding Jesus’ expected return (Acts 1:9-11; 1 Thess 4:17; Rev 1:7).

Verse 15 brings certain eschatological details into view; we may note these as follows:

    • The association of heavenly Messengers (Angels, a&ggeloi) with the Son of Man figure. In many of the eschatological sayings of the Jesus, the “Son of Man” is said to appear from heaven together with these Messengers—Mark 8:38 par; 13:26-27 par; Matt 13:39-41ff; 25:31; Luke 12:8-9; cf. also John 1:51.
    • The image of the Temple sanctuary (nao/$). In the book of Revelation, the Temple is primarily a heavenly symbol, representing the dwelling place of God, but also as a gathering place for the People of God (in their heavenly aspect)—cf. 3:12; 7:15; 11:19; 16:1, 17. Only in 11:1-2 is the Temple (and its sanctuary) used in reference to the People of God in their earthly aspect (i.e. believers on earth). Here the Messenger comes out of the sanctuary, i.e. from God’s presence, to address the Son of Man.
    • The harvest imagery is specifically associated with the Judgment, by way of an apparent allusion to Joel 3:13 (cf. below).

Some may find it strange that a Messenger (Angel) here commands the exalted Jesus (Son of Man) to act (imperative “You must…”). However, this simply reflects the fundamental (and sometimes forgotten) meaning of an a&ggelo$ as a messenger—that is, one who conveys a message from God the Father. Here this describes God the Father informing Jesus (the Son) that the time has come to act. It may also reflect the situation in the difficult Synoptic saying of Mark 13:32 par, where Jesus indicates that only the Father (and not the Son) knows just when the moment of the end will occur (cf. also Acts 1:7; 17:31 for this as a time specifically set by God).

The grain harvest, depicted in vv. 15-16, as a symbol has two main points of signification: (1) that the end-time Judgment is begun by Jesus (the Son of Man) at his return, and (2) that it refers primarily to the salvation/deliverance of believers. Generally such harvest-imagery in the New Testament refers to the gathering of believers, and is thus a positive image (of salvation)—cf. Matt 9:37-38; Mark 4:29; Luke 10:2; John 4:35-38. Only in the process of threshing—separating grain from chaff (i.e. the righteous from the wicked)—does the negative aspect (of condemnation/punishment) enter in (Matt 3:12 par; 13:40-42). Here the punishment side of the Judgment is reserved for the scene of the grape harvest (vv. 17-20), drawing heavenly upon Old Testament and Jewish tradition, especially the oracle in Joel 3:9-16. This will be discussed in the next daily note.

It is worth noting that it is Jesus (the Son of Man) himself who performs the grain harvest, but the grape harvest is left to a heavenly Messenger (Angel). This probably reflects the close connection between the personal return of Jesus and the gathering of the elect (believers) specifically. This is certainly the point of emphasis both in the original Gospel tradition of Mark 13:26-27 par (even though Angels oversee the gathering), as well as Paul’s exposition in 1 Thess 4:15-17 (cf. also 1:10; 2 Thess 2:1, etc). The separation of the righteous from the wicked, thereby consigning the latter for judgment/punishment, is seen as the activity of the Angels in Matt 13:39-49. Here, too, in the book of Revelation, it is the heavenly Messengers who unleash the Judgment upon the earth in the Trumpet- and Bowl-visions.

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November 3: Revelation 14:6-13

Revelation 14:6-13

This is the second of three visions in chapter 14 (on the first in vv. 1-5, see the previous note). In terms of the basic framework of early Christian eschatology, it marks the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) and announces the beginning of the great Judgment (kri/si$). It thus holds the same place as the half-hour of silence (at the opening of the seventh seal) in 8:1f; note the parallel structure:

  • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 5-6)
  • Vision of the 144,000, together with the Lamb (chapter 7)
  • Angels & the preparation for the Judgment (8:1-2)
  • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 8-9)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the period of distress (chapters 12-13)
    • Vision of the 144,000 together with the Lamb (14:1-5)
    • Angels & the preparation/onset of the Judgment (14:6-13, 14-20)
    • Vision-cycle depicting the great Judgment (chapters 15-16)

While the 144,000 symbolize the People of God (believers) generally, there is also a specific reference to those who have faithfully endured the period of distress (7:14; 14:4-5), whether or not they were put to death for following Christ. Since the author/seer and the first readers of the book would have assumed that they were about to enter into this period (i.e. that it was imminent and about to begin), there is no real contradiction in this. Modern-futurist interpretation (in its various forms), of course, requires that the period of distress is yet to come, and so the 144,000 must symbolize future believers.
[The entire question of modern-futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation will be discussed at the end of this series]

The vision in 14:6-13 describes the appearance of three heavenly Messengers (Angels), each of whom delivers a different, but related, message regarding the coming Judgment.

Verses 6-7: First Messenger

“And I saw another Messenger taking wing in the middle of the heaven, holding (the) good message of the Ages to deliver (as) a good message upon the (one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, upon every nation and offshoot (of the human race), and (every) tongue and people, declaring in a great voice: ‘You must fear God and give to him honor, (in) that [i.e. because] the hour of His Judgment (has) come, and you must kiss toward [i.e. worship] the (One) making the heaven and the earth and (the) sea and fountains of waters!'”

The image of the Messenger flying “in the middle of the heavens” echoes that of 8:13, confirming the Judgment-setting. There, however, it was a message of woe to the people on earth; here, along with the warning of the Judgment is a message of hope. The idea seems to be that God is giving humankind one final chance to repent and turn to Him, much as we saw in the earlier Trumpet-cycle depicting the Judgment—note the remnant motif (i.e., two-thirds survive) and the specific notice at the close of the cycle (9:20-21).

I have translated the expression eu)agge/lion ai)w/nion literally (“good message of the Age[s]”). It is typically rendered “everlasting Gospel” or “eternal Gospel”; however, I feel it is especially important here to preserve the etymological meaning, since the “good message” relates to the consummation of the Ages, the end of the current Age. The Judgment marks the moment when God will eradicate evil and wickedness from the world, fully establishing His justice and rule over humankind. At the same time, no early Christian reader could hear the word eu)agge/lion without associating it with the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Like many symbols in the book of Revelation, the great Judgment itself has both earthly and heavenly aspects—i.e. Judgment that takes place on earth, and that which takes place (subsequently) in Heaven. It would seem that the visions allow for the possibility of people turning to faith in God (and Christ?) during the earthly Judgment (cf. below).

For the expression “good news” (using the eu)aggel– word-group), its background and usage in connection with the Roman emperor and the imperial cult, see my earlier Christmas season note and the recent Word Study series on Gospel/eu)agge/lion.

The use of the aorist tense (h@lqen, “came”) in verse 7 is interesting, since it suggests that the Judgment is a past event, even though it is just now being announced by the Messengers. Most translations render this like a perfect (“has come”); it may be considered as an ingressive aorist, indicating the start of an action. The focus on God as Creator, may reflect a style of Gospel-preaching to (Gentile) non-believers (cp. Acts 14:15-18; 17:23-31), but may also refer back to the idolatry and false religion emphasized in the chap. 13 visions (cp. Wisdom 13:1-19; Rom 1:18-25; Koester, p. 612). The chain of terms in verse 7, summarizing all of the inhabited world, is a direct echo of 13:7.

Verse 8: Second Messenger

“And another Messenger, a second, followed declaring: ‘Babilim the great (has) fallen, fallen!—the (one) who has made all the nations drink out of the wine of the (evil) impulse of her prostitution!'”

This second Messenger continues the “good message”, concerning the end of the current (and wicked) Age, with an announcement regarding “Babel” (i.e. the city Babylon). Greek Babulw/n is a transliteration of the name, presumably deriving from Akkadian b¹b-ilim (“Gate of God”); Hebrew lb#B* (B¹»el) is a similar transliteration, while English Babylon comes from the Greek. The nation-state centered on the city of Babylon was the pre-eminent (imperial) power at the time of the Judean exile, thus making it a fitting symbol for the conquering imperial power (Rome) in the first-century A.D.—the time of the Judean distress (c. 40-70) as well as suffering/persecution of believers when the book of Revelation was written. Most commentators regard “Babylon” as a cypher for Rome, both here and in 1 Peter 5:13. On the whole this is correct, and the identification is made more clear and specific in chapter 17; however, I believe that the symbolism is actually somewhat broader in scope. The interpretive key lies in the vision(s) of 11:1-13, especially the reference to the “great city” (h( po/li$ h( mega/lh) in v. 8, which is there identified with Jerusalem (cf. also vv. 1-2), but also called “Sodom” and “Egypt”, names specifically indicating worldly power and wickedness. Here, too, Babylon is called “the great (city)” (h( mega/lh), and, I believe, the meaning is generally the same. Whether identified by the specific name “Sodom”, “Egypt”, “Jerusalem”, “Babylon”, or “Rome”, the symbol refers primarily to the center of earthly power and influence, which is fundamentally (at least in this current Age) wicked and opposed to God.

Again an aorist form (e&pesen, “fell”) is used to describe something which, from the standpoint of the overall narrative, has not yet taken place. The use of a past tense (whether aorist or perfect in Greek) is sometimes used in reference to future events, speaking of them as something already completed—i.e. proleptic aorist. The use of the prophetic (and precative) perfect in Hebrew does much the same thing, often used to assure readers that something will take place. The specific form of the message (regarding Babylon) derives from Old Testament tradition and the nation-oracles in Isaiah and Jeremiah—specifically Isa 21:9 and Jer 50-51 (50:2; 51:8). It will be greatly expanded in chapter 18.

As is frequently the case in Jewish and early Christian tradition, the noun pornei/a (lit. referring to acts of prostitution) is used figuratively for wickedness and faithlessness to God (i.e. ‘idolatry’ and false religion, etc).

Verses 9-11: Third Messenger

“And another Messenger, a third, followed them declaring in a great voice: ‘If any one kisses toward [i.e. worships] the wild animal and its image, and takes the engraved (mark) upon the (space) between his eyes or upon his hand, even (so) th(is person) he will drink of the impulse of God’s (anger) having been poured out (for him), without (being) mixed (with water), in the drinking-cup of His anger, and he will be tested severely (and proven false), in fire and sulphur, in the sight of (the) holy Messengers and in the sight of the Lamb!—and the smoke of their severe testing steps [i.e. goes] up into the Ages of Ages, and they hold no resting up (from this) day and night, the (one)s kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] the wild animal and his image (and), indeed, if any one takes the engraved (mark) of its name!'”

I view the message in vv. 9-11 as comprised of a single long (elliptical) sentence, which I have sought to make more readable by punctuating with commas throughout. Its elliptical structure can be illustrated with a chiastic outline:

    • Any one who worships the creature…and takes its mark
      • he will drink from the cup of God’s anger (i.e. divine judgment)
        • they will be tested severely in fire (judged & punished)
          • in the sight of the holy Messengers and the Lamb
        • the smoke of their severe testing rises (judged & punished)
      • they have no rest from it day and night (i.e. eternal judgment)
    • ones who worships the creature…and take its mark

The description of the one who worships (lit. “kisses toward”, vb proskune/w, a common Greek idiom signifying worship/veneration) the “wild animal” (qhri/on, i.e. the Sea-creature) occurs both at the beginning and end of the message, a dual-emphasis that shows just how serious the matter is. It also confirms the context of the visions in chapter 14 as that of chap. 13, with its depiction of the wicked influence exerted by the Sea-creature over humankind. It is specifically stated that anyone who so venerates the Sea-creature (and its living ‘image’ on earth), and takes the engraved mark (xa/ragma) showing that he/she belongs to the creature, will face the full brunt of God’s anger (o)rgh/) in the Judgment. The immediate context of these verses makes clear that it is the heavenly aspect of the Judgment that is in view.

Drinking from a cup (poth/rion) is a traditional motif for the fate a person will experience, often in the negative sense of suffering and/or punishment. For the idiom in the Old Testament, cf. Psalm 16:5; 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15-17; 49:12, etc. Jesus famously uses it in the garden scene of the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:36 par, cf. also 10:38-39 par). This cup is controlled by God, and given out to human beings (who meet their fate over the course of their lives). Here it is meant as a precise contrast with the wine that Babylon made the nations drink (v. 8; cf. Jer 51:7). In both instances the noun qumo/$ is used, which I regularly translate as “impulse” (for lack of a better option in English); it basically refers to a violent or passionate movement, as of air, breath, etc, sometimes internalized as a movement of the soul or mind. The wine Babylon gives is from her wicked impulse to “prostitution”, whereas the wine God makes people drink in the Judgment comes from His impulse to anger, to punish the wicked. This wine is said to be a&krato$, “without mixture”, that is, without being diluted by water—at its full strength.

The verb basani/zw (and related noun basanismo/$) is typically translated as “torment”, but more properly refers to an intense testing, as of metal that is tried by fire. That is the basic image here. The wicked, of course, are proven to be false in the fire of testing, which becomes a painful torture for them (a common denotation when basini/zw is used of human beings). The motifs of fire and sulphur, along with the rising smoke, allude to the destruction of cities (even a “great city”, cf. above), following the traditional imagery of the destruction of the wicked Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24, 28) which came to be used as a symbol of the end-time Judgment (Luke 10:12 par; 17:29; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7; cf. also Rev 11:8). Many Christians are naturally disturbed by the idea of the wicked being tormented endlessly; however, any ethical-religious issues we may have today are quite foreign to the text itself and its first-century setting. We should not try to soften or mitigate the imagery, nor should any attempt be made to view it as an absolute metaphysical description of the afterlife.

Verses 12-13: A Fourth Voice

“Here is the need for the holy (one)s to remain under [i.e. endure faithfully], the (one)s keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God and the trust of Yeshua. And I heard a voice out of the heaven saying, ‘Write (this): happy the (one)s th(at are) dying away in the Lord from now (on)’. ‘Yes’, says the Spirit, ‘(so) that they will rest up out of [i.e. from] their beatings, for their works follow with them’.”

Verse 12 represents the author/seer’s own words to his readers. He stresses again the importance of remaining faithful to Christ during the end-time period of distress (which he and his audience are believed to be entering). The dangers for believers described in the chap. 13 visions—both in terms of being led astray and of being persecuted (and put to death) for remaining faithful—would have been realized already by the surrounding pagan culture and, especially, the imperial cult tied to Roman rule. What is envisioned in chapter 13 is a more extreme, intense, and wicked version of what Christians in Asia Minor, at the end of the 1st-century, were already facing. The description of believers in v. 12b echoes that of 12:17, there referring to believers as children of the Woman (i.e. the People of God on earth). See the prior note on that verse for a discussion of the plural noun e)ntolai/, usually translated “commandments”. In my view, the expression “the e)ntolai/ of God” is best understood and comparable to “the law [no/mo$] of God” in Paul’s letters (Rom 7:22, 25; 1 Cor 9:21). It refers generally to the will of God, such as is expressed in the Old Testament law (Torah) and the teaching of Jesus, but should not be reduced to a specific set of commands or teachings. The pairing of expressions means that believers are people who generally live in a manner that corresponds to the will of God, and who also, specifically (and most importantly), have trust/faith in Jesus.

The final message is one of comfort for believers, given by a heavenly Messenger, and echoed by the Spirit. The main difficulty lies in the expression a)p’ a&rti (“from now [on]”); it can be understood three ways, moving from narrower to broader focus:

    • It refers to believers (or those who come to be believers) alive during the great Judgment on the earth. The message of the first Angel (cf. above) seems to allow for the possibility of people coming to faith during the Judgment, or just prior to its onset. Given the terrible events that will occur on earth at the Judgment (vividly described in the Trumpet- and Bowl-cycles), death certainly would be a blessing.
    • It refers primarily to the period of distress that precedes the Judgment on earth; believers certainly will live through this (according to the visions of chaps. 12-13 and elsewhere in the book), and will suffer greatly. Here, too, death, even as a result of execution, would be a comfort.
    • It is meant more directly for the audience/readers of the book, who, it must be said, were expected to live into the (imminent) period of distress.

In my view, the last, and most inclusive interpretation best fits the context of both the vision and the book as a whole. In any case, the blessing (or happiness) of believers who die during this time is two-fold: (1) they receive rest from suffering and distress (referred to as “beatings” ko/poi, something with weakens or reduces strength), and (2) they are rewarded for their faithfulness (referred to here as “works”, e&rga).

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October 12: Revelation 12:7-12

Revelation 12:7-12

This is the second of three episodes in the vision of Chapter 12. In the first episode (vv. 1-6, cf. the previous note), there was portrayed a conflict on earth, in which a mythical dragon-being attacks a woman and her children. The detail would make clear to any Christian reader that it was a narrative regarding the birth of Jesus (as the Messiah) and his life on earth, but told in mythological language familiar to many in the Greco-Roman world, such as in the tale of the Serpent (Python) that threatened the divine child (Apollo) and his mother (Leto). This conflict on earth is picked up again in verse 13, but in between, in verses 7-12, there is narrated a parallel conflict in heaven. This yields the following outline of the chapter:

    • Vv. 1-6: Conflict on earth—The woman and her child are threatened by the dragon
      —Vv. 7-9: War in heaven—Victory of Michael and the (good) Angels
      —Vv. 10-12: War in heaven—Victory Hymn, with praise and warning
    • Vv. 13-17: Conflict on earth—The woman and her children are threatened by the dragon

This generally reflects the ancient (religious) mindset that events and details on earth have their corresponding counterpart in heaven. In particular, conflict (or war) on earth could be indicated, or presaged, by clashes in the heavens (cf. 2 Macc 5:1-4; Josephus War 6.298-9; Lucan Pharsalia 1.578; Tacitus Histories 5.13; Koester, p. 547).

Revelation 12:7a

The conflict in heaven is introduced with the opening statement:

“And there came to be war in the heaven—Mîka’el and his Messengers with the Fabulous (Creature).” (v. 7a)

The heavenly being Mîka’el (la@k*ym!, Greek Mixah/l, Michael), whose name means “Who is like the Mighty One [°E~l, i.e. ‘God’]?”, is a leading Angelic figure, according to Old Testament and Jewish tradition (Daniel 10:13ff; 12:1ff; 1 Enoch 20:5; 24:6; 40:9-10, etc) . The structure of the narrative here indicates that, at the same time as the “Fabulous Creature” (dra/kwn) is attacking the Woman and her children (on earth), he/it is also engaged in battle in heaven.

There is a longstanding and well-established tradition of Angelic warfare, which is similar, in many respects, to the wars between the Gods in various Near Eastern (and Greco-Roman) cosmological myths. Such myths are typically cosmogonic (and theogonic), corresponding to the beginning and process of creation, in which the current world order was established. And, indeed, Jewish traditions regarding the Angelic battle also tend to be set in the primeval time, though the conflict is seen as extending into the present as well (cf. 1 Enoch 6-10; Life of Adam and Eve 12-16; Ascension of Isaiah 7:9-12, etc). Michael plays a key part in this conflict, serving also as the heavenly Protector of God’s people (Dan 10:13, 21; 12:1; 1 Enoch 20:5; and in the Qumran War Scroll [1 QM]). Jude 9 preserves an earlier Jewish tradition in which Michael contends with the Devil (over the body of Moses). He is also depicted as binding the rebellious Angels in anticipation of their ultimate Judgment (1 Enoch 10:11; 54:6).

Revelation 12:7b-8

“The Fabulous (Creature) made war, and (also) his Messengers (with him), and (yet) they did not have strength (enough) and their place was found (to be) no longer in the heaven.” (vv. 7b-8)

The idea that the Devil (or the Satan) has Angels who support him, and fight on his side, simply reflects the ancient tradition of the Angels who rebelled against God’s established order. It is, however, also specified in passages such as 1 Enoch 54:6; Testament of Dan 6:1; and Matthew 25:41. Under the name Belial, the Evil One (Satan) is depicted as ruler of evil spirits, such as in several of the Qumran texts; also by the title Mastêmâ (Jubilees 10:7ff) and the ancient Canaanite Ba’al-zebul (Mark 3:22). Here, the defeat of the Dragon’s army is described by two phrases:

    • “they did not have strength (enough)” [ou)k i&sxusen]—i.e. they lost the battle, and
    • “their place [to/po$] was found (to be) no longer in heaven” —that is, as a result of the battle, and as punishment for their hostility, they were no longer allowed to reside in heaven

This last point assumes that they previously had been residing in heaven; in the case of the Satan, his presence in heaven is part of the earliest tradition (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Zech 3:1).

Revelation 12:9

“And (so) was thrown (out) the great Fabulous (Creature)—the snake of the beginning, the (one) being called ‘(the One) casting (evil) throughout’ and ‘the Satan‘, the (one) making the whole inhabited (earth) go astray—he was thrown (down) onto the earth, and his Messengers were thrown (down) with him.” (v. 9)

The core tradition is that of the rebellious Angels begin thrown out of heaven, down onto/into the earth (cf. above). However, the visionary here also specifically identifies the mythological Dragon with the Evil One, using a series of titles and descriptive terms:

    • “the snake of the beginning” (o( o&fi$ o( a)rxai=o$)—that is, the Serpent of Genesis 3. Christians were not the first to make such an identification, i.e. of the Satan/Devil with the Serpent, as it had already been established in Jewish tradition (1 Enoch 69:6; Wisdom 2:24; Apocalypse of Moses 16; Apocalypse of Abraham, etc; Koester, p. 549). Here it may also indicate that the “Fabulous Creature” had a snake-like appearance.
    • “the (one) casting (evil) throughout”, or, “the (one) throwing over (accusations/insults)” —this is a literal rendering of the Greek dia/bolo$, typically left transliterated in English as devil, or “the Devil”.
    • “the Satan”, Satana=$ in Greek being a transliteration of the Hebrew /f*c*(h^), “(the) adversary”, “(the) accuser”. Cf. below on verse 10.
    • “the (one) making the whole inhabited (earth) go astray” —this descriptive phrase is centered on the verb plana/w, (“stray, wander”, transitive “cause to stray”). This reflects the basic idea of the Devil as one who both tempts and deceives human beings—cf. Matt 4:1-11 par; John 8:44; 1 Cor 7:5; 2 Cor 11:14; Rev 20:8ff, etc.

For those wishing to place the rebellion and expulsion of Satan (and his Angels) into a specific historical or chronological setting, this passage is problematic, since, on the surface, it suggests that this did not occur until after Jesus’ birth. As mentioned above, Jewish tradition tends to set this event in primordial times (some would interpret Isa 14:12-15 and Ezek 28:16-17 in a similar manner, though this is questionable at best). However, far more important is the symbolism involved—that of the defeat of the forces of evil, represented by the Dragon and his heavenly allies. The expulsion, or casting down out of heaven, serves primarily as a literary device, focusing the conflict with evil entirely on earth. The parallel conflict in heaven has been eliminated. Moreover, the manifest presence of these evil forces on earth also symbolizes the increase of wickedness and persecution that is to occur in the period of distress before the end. There had already been earthly forces of evil (corresponding to the heavenly), but now they are strengthened greatly by the concentrated presence (and power) of the heavenly forces on earth.

A second aspect of the symbolism here is fundamentally Christological; that is, the defeat of the evil powers coincides with Jesus’ presence and work on earth. This idea is expressed at a number of points in the Gospel tradition, most notably the statement by Jesus in Luke 10:18:

“…I looked at the Satan falling out of the heaven as a flash (of lightning).”

Jesus sent out his disciples to minister as his representatives (vv. 1-12), and gave them authority over the evil spirits, etc, this latter point being made only upon their return (vv. 18-19). The disciples’ power over evil spirits (responsible for disease, etc), an extension of Jesus’ own power, is symbolized in terms of the defeat of Satan. It would seem that a similar line of thought is expressed here in Revelation 12 as well.

Revelation 12:10-12

Following the defeat of the Dragon, there is a hymn of praise, introduced generally with the statement, “And I heard a great voice in the heaven saying…”. It is essentially all of heaven that is speaking, i.e. all the holy ones and heavenly beings collectively; from the standpoint of the visionary imagery in the book of Revelation, this must be understood as the people of God in their heavenly aspect:

“Now has come to be the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the e)cousi/a of His Anointed, (in) that [i.e. because] the (one who) brings down (accusation) on our brothers was thrown (down), the (one) bringing down (accusations) in the sight of our God day and night.” (v. 10)

The characterization of the Evil One (i.e. the Dragon) as kath/gwr (vb kathgore/w) reflects the earliest (and primary) aspect of the Satan tradition, as expressed in Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Zech 3:1, where he accuses people of wrongdoing before God’s throne (as a judicial tribunal). This aspect is generally not present in the New Testament, the role of the Satan/Devil having taken on a more common and overtly hostile dimension—i.e. deception, incitement to evil, etc. Thus the visionary here is drawing more directly upon the Old Testament tradition in describing the Satan.

The expression “our brothers”, in referring to human believers, shows the solidarity of heavenly beings with earthly beings, and demonstrates again the dual-aspect of the People of God—both heavenly and earthly. And it is with the heavenly defeat of the Dragon—the earthly defeat being yet to come—the Kingdom of God is now fully realized, at least for those in heaven; however, the promise this message brings for those on earth is also of the greatest significance. Here the “Kingdom” is comprised of salvation (swthri/a) and power (du/nami$), reflecting two interrelated aspects of God’s dominion over Creation: it is defined as the power to deliver people from the forces of evil. This power was demonstrated in the heavenly battle, but also through the saving work of Jesus on earth. The exalted Jesus is here identified as the “Anointed One”, with the e)cousi/a (i.e. ability, authority) to rule alongside God Himself.

“And they were victorious over him through the blood of the Lamb and through the account of their witness, and (that) they did not love their souls until death.” (v. 11)

Here “they” refers to believers on earth, who are facing suffering and persecution in the end time period of distress (described in the following vv. 13-17). This has been an important theme throughout the book, beginning especially with the letters to the seven churches (chaps. 2-3), where the endurance of persecution while still remaining faithful is defined as “being victorious” (vb nika/w)—cf. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21. Ultimately this victory stems from the sacrificial work (i.e. death and resurrection) of Jesus himself (Jn 16:33). The verb nika/w may be characterized as a Johannine term, occurring seven times in the Gospel and First Letter, and another 17 in the book of Revelation—24 out of 28 occurrences in the New Testament. Both the motifs of Jesus as the Lamb and the Gospel message of Jesus as witness are fundamental to the visionary language and imagery of the book. On the importance of believers enduring suffering even to the point of death, cf. Mark 8:34-37 par; 10:38-39 par; 13:12-13 par; Luke 17:33 par; John 12:25, and frequently throughout the book of Revelation.

“Through this you should be of a good mind, (you) heavens, and (you) the (one)s putting down (their) tent [i.e. dwelling] in them—(but) woe to the earth and the sea! (for it is) that the (one) casting (evil) throughout (has) stepped down toward you holding a great impulse (for destruction), having seen that he holds (only) a little time.” (v. 12)

The concluding statement of praise turns into an exhortation for believers in the present, shifting the attention from heaven to earth (the setting of the next episode in vv. 13-17). The heavens, and the heavenly beings, are called on to rejoice, since God’s Kingdom is now fully realized in heaven and the Devil has been cast out. But for the earth, the defeat of the forces of evil and the realization of God’s Kingdom must yet wait, at least until a short period of intense distress and persecution has passed. Believers, the children of the Woman (i.e. the People of God), must endure this period, which involves also great suffering for all of humankind (as expressed in the prior visions of chapters 6-9). This time of suffering will be relatively brief—symbolized by 3½ years—and, according to the declaration here, the Dragon is fully aware that he only has a short amount of time, and so must act aggressively. The work kairo/$ typically indicates a point or moment (rather than a period) of time, but can also refer to a particular occasion or opportunity; thus the concluding phrase could be rendered “knowing he has only a few moment(s left)”, or “knowing he has little opportunity (left to act)”. In any case, these words emphasize again for readers the imminence of the coming end.

The conjunction of the earth (gh=) with the sea (qa/lassa) foreshadows the dual-vision in chapter 13. Before exploring that vision, we must first examine the third and final episode of chapter 12 (vv. 13-17) in the next note of this series.

References marked as “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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