December 6: Revelation 18:21-24

Revelation 18:21-24

In the closing verses 21-24 we have a third heavenly announcement of Babylon’s fall in chapter 18. This time a Messenger uses a visual gesture to symbolize the message:

“And (then) one Messenger took up a strong stone, as a great grinding-stone, and threw it into the sea, saying: ‘So Babilim the Great City will be thrown (down) with violence, and shall (surely) not be found any longer!'” (v. 21)

This is a more dramatic version of the oracle against Babylon (the actual city) in Jeremiah 51:63-64, where a stone with a scroll tied to it was thrown into the Euphrates River, to visualize the message that “Babylon shall sink”. Similarly the stones of Tyre (cf. the previous note) would be thrown into the sea as part of her judgment and destruction (Ezekiel 26:12, 21). Jesus uses the same image of a millstone (mu/lo$, grinding-stone) thrown into the sea as a symbol of Judgment (Mark 9:42 par). The Prophets of Israel occasionally were directed (by God) to make use of concrete visual aids to illustrate the message of judgment, even as the Angel does here.

“‘And the voice of harpers and musicians and pipers and trumpeters shall (surely) not be heard in you any longer, and every (one) producing every (kind of) production shall (also surely) not be found in you any longer, and the voice of a grinding-stone shall (surely) not be heard in you any longer, and the light of a lamp shall (surely) not give light in you any longer, and bride-groom and bride shall (surely) not be heard in you any longer—(for it is) that your (merchant)s making passage in (the land) were the greatest (one)s of the earth, (and) that in your use of drugs all the nations were led astray! And (it is) in her (that the) blood of foretellers and holy (one)s was found, and (also) of all the (one)s having been slain upon the earth!'” (vv. 22-24)

The awkward syntax of the declaration in verses 22-24, both repetitive and with shifts in grammatical subject, reflects the harshness of the message itself, as the visions of chapters 17-18 build to a final climax. The list in vv. 22-23a is similar to the list of mercantile items in vv. 11-14; there it referred to the commercial activity that comes to an end with the fall of the Great City, here it is features of daily life (on the basic language and imagery, cf. Jeremiah 25:10). The millstone, used for grinding grain, is one of the items listed here, and its presence as the main visual symbol of the Angel’s action (v. 21) serves to indicate that daily life throughout the Great City is coming to an end. Both artists (i.e. musicians) and artisans (craftspeople and technicians) disappear; with the collapse of society, there is no need for these specialized workers. Even the basic act of grinding grain to produce food for the community, and the lamp-light by which such work is done, stops with the fall of the City. Family life ceases as well, as represented by marriage and wedding festivities (“bridegroom and bride”). The emptiness and desolation of the City is emphasized with the passive verbal references, repeated several times, that these activities of daily life “will no longer be found” and “will no longer be heard“. This sense of desolation was depicted differently in verse 2—the fallen City as the haunt of scavenging birds and wild animals.

The syntax and line of thought in vv. 23b-24 is difficult to discern. The list of daily activities that will cease is followed by two o%ti-clauses in v. 23:

    • “that [o%ti] your (merchant)s making passage in (the land) were the greatest (one)s of the earth”
    • “that [o%ti] in your use of drugs [farmakei/a] all the nations were led astray”

How do these relate to the prior list, and to each other? The first clause seems to express the reason why the things of daily life come to an end, i.e. “because your merchants…”. Perhaps this should be understood in the sense that the Judgment comes on the Great City because of its corruption, which means that its values are perverted. In Greco-Roman society, merchants and traders were often stereotyped as dishonest, coarse, and of the lower classes of society. To say that they were the “greatest ones” raises common commercial activity to the level of nobility; or, looking at it the opposite way, the nobles and “great ones” in society operate in a crass manner, addicted to the luxury and decadence supplied by merchants. The parallel between merchants and the use/supply of drugs, would confirm this basic idea that society is addicted to the material goods (esp. the luxury items) supplied by commercial dealers. This corruption and decadence marks the City’s downfall. The noun farmakei/a can also connote the practice of magic, i.e. use of potions and the like to alter the natural way of things, or one’s perception of it. In the earlier chapter 13 visions, the Earth-creature uses magical/miraculous means to lead astray the people on earth, so that they follow the Sea-creature and worship his image.

The syntax shifts again in verse 24, moving from second person address back to third person (“and in her…”). In English translations, this virtually requires that a new sentence begin, though in the original Greek vv. 22-24 are perhaps best viewed as a single sentence, despite the syntactical difficulties. It reinforces the sense that we are dealing with a genuine visionary experience; in the ordinary narrative of a planned written work, the author would generally take more grammatical care. Part of the problem throughout is that Old Testament allusions blend with visionary description, and this creates a certain tension within the narrative. Here, the statement in v. 24 alludes again to the Babylonian oracle of Jeremiah (51:49). The “blood” of believers—i.e. their being persecuted and put to death–is the pinnacle of the Great City’s crime, emphasized earlier in 16:6; 17:6, and elsewhere in the book (2:13; 6:9-11; 7:14; 11:7-10; 13:7, 10). Even as the activities of daily life are no longer found in the City, the blood of believers is still there, the stain of guilt for it remaining in her.

Yet, it is not just the blood of believers, but that of all those who have been slain. This is one of the only places in the book of Revelation where the more general aspect of the Great City’s injustice and violence is emphasized. Typically, the focus is on the suffering of believers, not humankind in general. However, early Christians were not unaware of the social injustices in the Roman Empire. With every conquest, each quelled revolt, etc, populations were put to death, impoverished and enslaved. Similar acts of violence and exploitation were part of the overall corruption of human society, in its wickedness. As such, it is very much to be included in the Judgment; the Great City’s crimes are not against Christians alone, but against all peoples and nations everywhere.

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December 4: Revelation 18:9-20

Revelation 18:9-20

Verses 9-20 continue the prophetic announcement of the fall of “Babylon”, by the heavenly voice in vv. 4-8 (cf. the previous note). Here are depicted three groups of people who cry and lament the great city’s demise: (1) “kings of the earth” (vv. 9-10), (2) “merchants of the earth” (vv. 11-17a), and (3) those who travel and “work on the sea” (vv. 17b-19). In addition to the Old Testament oracles against the actual city of Babylon (and its empire)—Isaiah 13-14, 21, 47; Jeremiah 50-51—the lament in vv. 9-20 draws upon the oracles against the city-state of Tyre (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26-28, esp. chapter 27), due to its prominence as a sea-faring commercial power.

Revelation 18:9-10

“And they shall cry (aloud) and beat (themselves) about her, (shall) the kings of the earth, the (one)s (hav)ing engaged in prostitution with her and experiencing (her) rough (pleasures), (now) standing from far off through the(ir) fear of her (painful) testing, (and) saying: ‘Oh, oh, (for) the Great City! Babilim the strong city! (for it is) that in a single hour your judgment came!'”

The language in these verses reflects that used earlier in chapters 17-18. It had already been mentioned several times how the “kings of the earth” had engaged in ‘prostitution’ with the Great City (as a prostitute), sharing in her lavish and reckless wickedness (17:2ff; 18:3; cf. also 14:8). The verb strhnia/w, along with the related noun strh=no$, was used in vv. 3, 7; it connotes “roughness”, living/acting roughly, i.e. in a reckless manner that violates standards of decency and morality. The expression “kings of the earth” is comprehensive, referring to the rulers and governments of the nations, especially those which were part of the Roman Empire—including the local rulers and officials in Asia Minor who participated in, and cooperated with, the imperial administration. It was, of course, the situation in the Asian province(s) which was most relevant to the author and audience of the book of Revelation. The scene alludes to Jeremiah 51:7-8, while the reaction by onlookers may also echo Jer 50:13 (cf. 18:16); the fear and horror expressed by the kings is also part of the oracle against Tyre (Ezek 26:15-17; 27:35). In verse 8, the suddenness of the judgment against the Great City (and its destruction) is said to take place in a single (mi/a) day; here it is described even more dramatically as occurring in a single (mi/a) hour. This alludes back to 17:12 and the “horns” (or vassal-kings) who will bring about the city’s destruction.

Revelation 18:11-17a

“And the (merchant)s making passage in (the lands) of the earth shall (also) cry (aloud) and feel sorrow upon her, (in) that [i.e. because] no one goes to the market-place (to purchase) the full load of their (merchandise)—not any longer!—(their) full load of: gold and silver and valuable stones, and pearls, and (fine) linen and purple (cloth), and silk and crimson (cloth), and (wood from) every fragrant tree and every vessel of elephant (tusk) [i.e. ivory], and every vessel (made out) of valuable tree(s) and copper and iron and marble, and (also) cinnamon and amomon and (other) fragrant (spice)s, and myrrh-ointment and libanos (incense), and wine and oil, and semidalis (flour) and grain, and (animal)s (for one’s) possession, and (flock)s of sheep, and horses and the four-wheeled (carriages they draw), and (even human) bodies and the souls of men!” (vv. 11-13)

The reference to merchants in verse 3b, alongside the “kings of the earth”, introduced the aspect of the commercial activity that took place throughout the empire of the great city “Babylon” (i.e. the Roman Empire). The specific expression is “e&mporoi of the earth”, parallel with “kings of the earth”. The plural noun e&mporoi essentially means those who make passage (or make their way) in a region—that is, in order to sell or trade their goods. Their lament for the Great City’s destruction is that they no longer have any place to sell their goods. It is a vivid and colorful way of referring to the economic collapse in society that goes along with the collapse of “Babylon’s” empire. Indeed, the Roman Empire supported a vast network of commercial activity, all through its enormous geographical territory. The wealth of the empire was indicated, especially, by the extensive trade in luxury items—these are generally the items mentioned in the list of vv. 12-13. The list itself is clearly inspired by the oracle against Tyre in Ezekiel 27, and essentially summarizes (in a shorthand form) the goods and transactions narrated in vv. 12-25 of the oracle.

The list climaxes with “(human) bodies and souls of men” —that is to say, slaves. The wealth of the Roman Empire, like that of nearly every powerful kingdom or state, was built upon slave labor. This is true even today, among the wealthy nations, though globalization and other factors have made the network of slave labor more complex, and less immediately apparent to the average citizen. A fitting symbol from Roman times would be the thermal bath-systems of the great cities; the slaves who labored below, stoking the fires, etc, were completely unseen by those enjoying the luxury of the baths above. The book of Revelation says very little regarding social justice, in the modern sense of the term; however, Christians at the time were not unaware of the inequities in society. Such fundamental injustice was a general part of the portrait of wickedness in the Roman Empire (and other nations) that would be punished in the great Judgment. The harshness and violence (including slave labor) that accompanied the City’s luxury is doubtless connoted in the use of the verb strhnia/w for the rough and reckless living of the Prostitute (cf. above).

The sense of loss is well expressed by the judgment-pronouncement in verse 14:

“‘And (so) the fruit of the hour [o)pw/ra], of (which) the impulse of your soul (was set) upon, (has) gone away from you; the sumptuous (thing)s and the radiant (thing)s were (all) lost from you, and not any longer—no, not (at all)—shall they (ever) find them (again)!'”

This poetic (or prosodic) verse has rather awkward syntax. The noun o)pw/ra is difficult to translate in English; literally it means something like “juice of the hour”, referring to the time or moment when the fruit is ripe. The first part of the verse, in the second person, is perhaps best understood in terms of the opportunity (for “Babylon”) to gain still greater wealth and power. Not only has that opportunity gone away, but the splendor which the City already possessed is also lost. The focus in the second part of the verse is on those others (kings, merchants, etc) who obtained wealth—symbolized by the luxury items in vv. 12-13—because of the Great City, by participating in its political and commercial networks of power. This is clear enough from the lament in vv. 15-17a:

“The (one)s making passage in (her to sell) these (thing)s, the (one)s (hav)ing been made rich from her, they will stand from far off through the(ir) fear of her (painful) testing, crying (aloud) and feeling sorrow, (and) saying: ‘Oh, oh (for) the Great City! the (one) having cast herself about with (fine) linen and purple and crimson, and having been golden-clad, [in] gold and valuable stone and pearl—(for it is) that in a single hour such rich(es have) been made desolate!'”

This is parallel to the lament of the kings in verse 10 (cf. above). The merchants similarly stand far off (makro/qen) out of fear for the judgment that has been unleashed on the City. Both in v. 10 and here the noun is basanismo/$, which fundamentally refers to testing, esp. the testing of metal in fire; it is often used in the negative sense of failing the test (i.e. the metal found to be false), in which case the fire (of testing) results in painful punishment, even destruction. This motif of testing by fire is, of course, most suitable for the destruction and burning of a city. In many English translations the decidedly negative connotation of basanismo/$ is made clear by rendering it as “torment”, “torture”, or something similar.

Kings and merchants both cry and grieve at the sight of the fallen City, expressing their sorrow in a similar form (beginning “Oh, oh for the Great City!”). Here the fine garments and gold jewelry are fitting for the lament of merchants, since the need for luxury items, and opportunity to sell/purchase them, has now come to an end. It also echoes the motif of the stripping and humiliation of the prostitute, leaving her (i.e. the City) desolate and naked (17:16; 18:7-8).

Revelation 18:17b-19

“And every (ship-)director and every (one) sailing upon (the sea to different) place(s), and boat-men and as many as work the sea, (they also) stood from far off and cried (aloud), looking at the smoke of her (burn)ing by fire, (and) saying: ‘Who is like the Great City?’ And they threw dust upon their heads and they shouted, crying (aloud) and feeling sorrow, saying: ‘Oh, oh, (for) the Great City! in whom all the (one)s holding the sailing-boats in the sea were made rich out of her valuable (wealth)—(for it is) that in a single hour she was made desolate!'”

Now everyone specifically involved in the seafaring side of the commercial activity joins the “kings of the earth” and “merchants of the earth” in making a similar lament (cf. above). A few extra details are added, such as throwing dust upon their heads, as a traditional sign of mourning. Also an additional (and climactic) question is given: “Who is like the Great City?” This echoes Ezek 27:32-33 in the oracle against Tyre. Both merchants and seamen are part of the commercial aspect here that is derived, primarily, from the Tyre-oracle in Ezek 27; the interest of the merchants is expressed in vv. 12-24, that of the seamen in vv. 26-32 (with the joining together in v. 25). However, given the special symbolism of the Sea (qa/lassa) in the book of Revelation, the emphasis on seafaring and “working (on) the sea” takes on particular significance. It alludes again, however subtly, to the wickedness of the Great City, and the Woman who sits upon the Sea-Creature and the “many waters”. Here the seamen lament their own loss, the personal (and selfish) interest of “the ones holding the sailing-boats”.

The rising smoke of the burning city (cf. verse 8, 17:16) was depicted in an earlier vision (14:8-11), and foreshadows the coming declaration in 19:3; it also serves as a symbol of the eternal punishment (i.e. the Judgment in its heavenly aspect) which awaits the wicked (14:11; cf. also 20:10, 14).

Revelation 18:20

The heavenly announcement of the Great City’s fall concludes with a note of rejoicing in verse 20:

“You shall be of a good mind upon her, O heaven, and (you) the holy (one)s and the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles] and the foretellers [i.e. prophets], (in) that [i.e. because] God (has) judged out of her the judgment (on) your (behalf)!”

The directive to be happy (vb eu)frai/w, “be of a good mind”) is addressed to the People of God (i.e. believers) in a three-fold aspect: (1) believers generally (“holy ones”), (2) apostles (“ones sent forth”), and (3) prophets (“foretellers”). Because God’s people (believers) suffered—being persecuted and put to death—during the end-time, all the more intensely as the period comes to a close, part of the Judgment against the wicked involves the working out of justice for believers (“your judgment”, i.e. judgment on your behalf). It is also possible that the Greek syntax here reflects the idea of the Great City being paid back in kind for what was done to believers (v. 6, cf. 17:6, etc). In that case, the wording would have to be translated something like: “God has judged out of her the judgment (given) [i.e. that she gave] for you”. This interpretation does not seem correct to me, since throughout the book of Revelation God is always the one judging or making judgment (vb kri/nw, noun kri/si$), not the wicked.

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November 25: Revelation 17:15-18

Revelation 17:7-18, concluded

Verses 15-18 provide a separate, parallel interpretation of the vision by the heavenly Messenger, alongside that of vv. 7-14.

Verse 15

“And he says to me: ‘The waters which you saw, on which the prostitute sits, are peoples and throngs (of people), nations and tongues.'”

In my earlier note on verse 1, I interpreted the “many waters” in relation to the overall symbol of the Sea (from which the Sea-creature emerges). The “Sea” represents the dark and chaotic forces of evil in the world, while the “waters” their manifestation and influence in the inhabited world of humankind. In the third bowl-vision (16:4ff), these waters were identified specifically as being on the earth—rivers and springs—in close proximity to human civilization, and upon which such communities depend. Thus the “waters” may be said to represent the presence and influence of the “Sea” over humankind (i.e. the nations). The Angel’s interpretation here in verse 15, similarly, but more explicitly, identifies the waters as the nations and peoples over whom the Sea-creature (and the Woman) exercise control.

Verse 16

“‘And the ten horns that you saw, and the wild animal (itself), these will hate the prostitute and will make her (as one) having become desolate and naked, and they will eat her flesh and burn her down in fire.'”

Here we have the extraordinary climax to the vision, as the Sea-creature with its horns turns against the Woman (the “prostitute”), stripping her of all her fine clothing and jewelry and destroying her in the most savage way. The imagery is that of a military siege and destruction of a city, according to the standards of warfare in the ancient world. The tendency to personify cities in feminine terms leads to the motif of stripping and humiliating a woman. Such imagery can be found in the nation-oracles of the Prophets, referring to the judgment against powerful cities (including Jerusalem)—cf. Hosea 2:5, 12; Nahum 3:5; Isa 47:3; Jer 13:26-27; Ezek 16:37-38; 23:10; 26-29; Koester, p. 680). Sculpted scenes of Roman conquests are often depicted in terms of violence and cruelty against a woman, images that are rightly disturbing to us today. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem (by the Romans in 70 A.D.), according to the Lukan version of the Eschatological Discourse, is similarly described as her “desolation” (e)rh/mwsi$, 21:20; cp. Mk 13:14 par, and cf. Lk 19:43-44).

The imagery of “eating flesh” and “burning in fire” more properly describes the result of siege warfare. A goal of such military tactics was to cut off the food supply and shut the population within the walls of the city, until the unbearable suffering forced them to capitulate. Siege warfare often brought famine and disease in its wake (similarly portrayed, it would seem, in the first four seal-visions, 6:1-8). A successful siege would likely end in the destruction and burning of the city, a fate met by Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., as also by countless other cities in ancient times. The eating of the woman’s flesh may also be an allusion to the end met by Jezebel (according to 2 Kings 9:30-37). This wicked queen, notorious as representing religious unfaithfulness (by promoting religious syncretism) among the people of Israel, was used as a figure-type for wickedness earlier in 2:20ff. Having one’s flesh ‘consumed’ also serves as a general image for a person being exploited by another (Psalm 27:2; Mic 3:3; Koester, p. 680).

Verse 17

“‘For God gave (it) into their hearts to do (according to) His (way of) knowing, and (so) to do (according to) one [mi/a] (way of) knowing, and to give their kingdom to the wild animal until the accounts of God should be completed.'”

God’s sovereignty over the end-time affairs, specifically as it relates to the enactment of the Judgment, is clearly expressed here. In verses 12-13, it was said of the horns—i.e. (vassal) kings—of the Sea-creature, that they ruled together with the creature for a single (mi/a) hour, and held a single (mi/a) mind. This unity of purpose is here declared to be according to God’s own purpose. The word translated “mind” is gnw/mh, also used here in v. 17, and more properly refers to a way of knowing or thinking about something, as I have rendered literally above. In more conventional theological terms, we might say that they act according to the will of God, in the sense that God allows (and directs) their wickedness to accomplish His own purpose. Throughout Israelite and Old Testament tradition, the execution of YHWH’s judgment against a people or nation was often seen as coming about through the concrete military action of an invading human army. So it is here in the vision as well.

The ten kings “give” their kingdom(s) to the Sea-creature, meaning that they recognize his authority, just as the elders of the heavenly People do for God in 4:10. This alliance lasts until the lo/goi of God are completed. Here the plural lo/goi may be understood several ways:

    • In the more literal sense of lo/go$ as an account, or accounting, meaning that the proper judgment is meted out, according to the wickedness of the nations, etc.
    • The conventional sense of lo/go$ as written account, specifically the words of the Prophets as recorded in Scripture. Future events, including the fate of various nations and cities, were made known in these texts. Oracles against Babylon are found in Isaiah 13-14, 21, 47, and Jeremiah 50-51, and these may be in view here; certainly the poem of “Babylon’s” fall in chapter 18 (to be discussed in the next note) was influenced by Jer 50-51, along with other portions of the nation-oracles.
    • The word lo/go$ can also be used in the specific sense of a revelation of the will of God, especially to apostles, Christian prophets, and other believers in Christ. This may take the form of a specific message or pattern of communication (i.e. proclamation of the Gospel), and thus an “account”. As discussed throughout the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, the inspired authors and speakers in the New Testament writings make various pronouncements regarding the coming end-time Judgment.
Verse 18

“‘And the woman which you saw is the Great City, the (one) holding rule as king upon [i.e. over] the kings of the earth.'”

The expression “the Great City” (h( po/li$ h( mega/lh) occurs numerous times in the book of Revelation; it is synonymous with “Babylon” in chapters 13ff (14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:10, 16, 18-19, 21), but was also used earlier in 11:8 where it was identified with Jerusalem (but also called “Egypt” and “Sodom”). As most commentators would agree, in the New Testament (in Revelation and also 1 Pet 5:13) “Babylon” is a cypher for Rome. The parallels, especially in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem, are obvious: Babylon and Rome were the capital cities of the conquering Empires of the time. In various recent notes, we have discussed how the symbolism of the visions would relate to the Roman Empire as the ruling power—and pinnacle of wicked, worldly power—for Christians at the end of the first century. While this does not exhaust the symbolism, in many instances it seems clear that the primary point of reference is Rome and the Roman Imperial government. From that standpoint, the symbolism here in chapter 17 may be summarized as follows:

    • The Sea and its Waters—The “Sea” represents the dark and turbulent forces of evil at work in the world; the “waters” refer to the presence of the Sea in the inhabited world, i.e. among human beings with their communities and nations.
    • The Sea Creature—This fabulous and hybrid “wild animal” comes up out of the Sea, and resembles the “Dragon”; thus its character is fundamentally wicked, characterized and influenced by the forces of evil. Like the creatures of the Daniel 7 vision, it represents a great kingdom and conquering empire. At the time of the book of Revelation, this is the Roman Empire.
    • The Woman—She is called a prostitute, signifying her blatant wickedness, immorality, and promiscuity, with an ability to seduce and influence people on earth. She is also identified as a city: the “great city” and “Babylon”. She sits upon the Sea-Creature, and the waters of the Sea, demonstrating her close connection with the Creature. If the Sea-Creature represents the Roman Empire, then the Woman, the City, is Rome; she sits upon “seven mountains”, best understood in terms of the traditional “seven hills” of Rome.

Based on this essential framework, other details in the vision (and its exposition) may be interpreted as follows:

    • The Seven Heads of the Sea-Creature—these “kings” almost certainly refer to Roman Emperors of the first-century, though it is probably no longer possible (if it ever were) to identify them precisely with a sequence of seven emperors. The author and his audience were living during the reign of the sixth emperor, and another was yet to come (for more on this, cf. below).
    • The Ten Horns of the Creature—these “kings” are best understood as vassal kingdoms (and their rulers), who reign as subordinates under Roman Imperial authority; presumably their reigns correspond to the current/future rule of the sixth and seventh (and eighth) emperors. They, like the seventh emperor, will rule for only a short time (“one hour”).

To the extent that the visionary narrative in chapter 17 is meant to describe a sequence of actual historical events, it may outlined as follows:

    • The author and his audience are (presumably) living during the reign of the “sixth” king (emperor); this would likely correspond to an approximate date of 69 or 90-95 A.D., depending on just when the book of Revelation was composed. Most critical commentators would opt for the latter date.
    • The brief reign of the “seventh” king (emperor) would soon follow; this could conceivably refer to a short period of time rather the specific reign of a single emperor. In any case, it is likely that only a few years would be involved, probably less than a decade, unless the visionary details are more broadly symbolic.
    • After this, an “eighth” king (emperor) will reign; this will be a truly evil, demonic incarnation of the wicked Sea-creature itself, and not an ‘ordinary’ human emperor at all (cp. 2 Thess 2:3-12). The specific wording in verse 8 (cf. also 13:3, 12, 14) raises the possibility that this demonic figure may resemble an earlier emperor who had previously died. This is all the more likely if the Nero redivivus (return of Nero) legend is in view here, as most critical commentators would hold.
    • At the time of this demonic emperor, there will be an alliance of vassal kingdoms (the “ten horns”); the alliance is temporary and short-lived, but it probably should be seen as beginning after the reign of the “sixth” emperor.
    • At some point, these vassal kings will turn on the city Rome and lay siege to it, destroying it and burning it with fire. This is probably to be understood as occurring prior to the great final battle (19:11-21, cp. 16:12-16ff).

It must be admitted that nothing quite like this ever took place, and certainly not within the time-frame suggested here in the vision. Rome was, in fact, sacked and destroyed (at least partially) by the invading armies of ‘vassal’ kingdoms, i.e. the migrating Germanic peoples with whom Rome was forced to form alliances, etc. The first such sacking took place in 390 B.C. (by the Senone Gauls), but the others occurred in the centuries after the book of Revelation was written; note the following events, with the associated people and ruler (in parentheses):

    • 410 A.D., by the Visigoths (Alaric I)
    • 455 A.D., by the Vandals (Genseric)
    • 546 A.D. (and again in 549-550) by the Ostrogoths (Totila)

As we approach the conclusion of this series of notes, we will explore various attempts to interpret the first-century eschatology of Revelation from the vantage point (and time-frame) of later generations, including our own today. To avoid unnecessary complication, these interpretive approaches have been studiously avoided, so that the viewpoint of the author and his audience can be allowed to speak for itself, as far as that is possible.

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November 22: Revelation 17:12-14

Revelation 17:7-18, continued

Verse 12

“And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings, th(ose) which did not yet receive a kingdom, but they receive e)cousi/a as kings (for) one hour with the wild animal.”

In verses 9-11, the Messenger interpreted the seven heads of the Sea-creature as kings, correlating them to the time of the vision (and the writing of the book, i.e. its readers). In the previous note, I discussed the generally accepted view that the Sea-creature =represents the Roman Empire, as a predominant symbol of corrupt and wicked worldly power–with the seven mountains alluding to Rome and her ‘seven hills’, and the seven kings as first-century emperors up to (and beyond) the readers’ own time. Various attempts have been made to identity the seven with a particular sequence of seven emperors, and I noted what I regard as the two most plausible such schema. However, both seven and ten are symbolic numbers, functioning as symbols in the visions, and should not be made to fit historical circumstances exactly. Indeed, the division of 5+2 is a numeric scheme utilized in the vision-cycles—visions 1-5 grouped together, followed by visions 6 and 7; this is particularly true in both the seal-vision and bowl-vision cycles. Similarly, here the first five kings form a group—those who have “fallen” (i.e. have died or been killed), ruling in the past; the last two reign in the present and immediate future.

Likewise, the ten horns are also kings, just as the ten horns of the fourth creature in the Daniel 7 vision (vv. 7-8, 11, 20ff, 24ff; on the horn as a symbol of power and strength, cf. the prior note on 13:1). In the earlier description, the horns were said to have “diadems” (cloth/silk band wrapped around), indicating a royal status. Thus there are two groups of kings. Important details are offered by the Angelic interpreter which help to identify the nature of these “kings”:

    • “(they) did not yet receive a kingdom”
    • “they receive e)cousi/a as kings for one hour…”

This wording suggests that they are not rulers in the sense that the “heads” are, i.e. are not emperors; rather they are vassal kings, who receive kingship and rule from the head-king (emperor), reigning as semi-independent subordinates, but only for a relatively short time. Governing the vast territory of the Roman Empire, with its ethnic and cultural diversity, required that local vassal kings be employed on occasion, and in certain places. Herod the Great was just such a king (over Judea), one who could be removed from power at any time, as Rome saw fit. This king-making authority is demonstrated by a historical anecdote associated with the emperor Nero; when a Parthian leader offered his allegiance to Rome (and Nero), the emperor is said to have responded, “I now declare you king of Armenia…I have power to take away kingdoms and to bestow them” (Dio Cassius, Roman History 62.5.3, as cited in Koester, p. 679). Here in verse 12 the wording is clear: the horn-kings receive their kingdoms from the head-king, and they also receive the e)cousi/a from him to act as kings. The noun e)cousi/a is difficult to render literally in English, as I have often noted; basically it refers to a person’s own ability to do something, often in the sense of it being granted to him/her from a superior (i.e. the authority to do something). That is very much the situation here. These kings rule “(together) with” the Sea-creature (and its head), meaning that they reign under the creature’s authority.

As mentioned above, the specific number ten is symbolic, and it is probably foolish to attempt an identification of these horns with an actual set of ten vassal kings who reigned at a particular time. It may well be that the combination of head(s) and horns serves as a comprehensive symbol for the nations—those of the known world at the time, i.e. the Roman Empire and its vassals. This idea of the nations as a collective group was expressed differently in the last two bowl-visions:

    • Vision 6 (16:12-16)—Kings cross the great River (Euphrates), expanding to comprise all the kings of the inhabited world, who gather for battle in the day of Judgment
    • Vision 7 (16:17-21)—When the great City (Babylon) is toppled, all the cities of the nations—mountains and islands, etc—likewise fall and break apart; this is a depiction of the Judgment anticipated in the sixth vision (cf. 19:11-21)
Verse 13

“These hold one mind and give their power and e)cousi/a to the wild animal.”

The unity of these kings (nations) in their purpose and intention is emphasized. This indicates more than their loyalty to the Sea-creature (and its head); it anticipates their common hostility toward the creature, to be described in verses 16ff. However, they clearly recognize their status as vassals, acknowledging that their power and authority (e)cousi/a) comes from the Sea-creature. This generally reflects the situation in the Roman Empire, where the vassal rulers and nations had to acknowledge Rome’s sovereignty, but would seek any opportunity for true independence, to break free from Roman authority, if this were possible.

Verse 14

“These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will be victorious over them, (in) that [i.e. because] he is (the) Lord of lords and King of kings, and the (one)s with him (are) called and gathered out and trusting (one)s.”

This verse summarizes the Judgment of the nations, as in the earlier visions of 14:17-20 and 16:17-21; it will be depicted in much greater detail in 19:11-21. There are three components to the description here:

    • War with the kings of the nations and their defeat
    • The Lamb (Jesus) identified as the greatest King and embodiment of all kingship and rule
    • Believers who serve (and rule) as his vassals

The initial wording (“they will make war with [the Lamb]”) reflects that of the conflict-visions in chapters 12-13, where the Dragon and Sea-creature likewise “make war with” the people of God (believers / offspring of the Woman, cf. 12:7ff, 17; 13:7). Likewise in the sixth bowl-vision, the kings of all the nations gather together to make war; ostensibly, the evil purpose of their gathering is to make war against God (here against the Lamb), but the Judgment they will face may, it seems, also involves their fighting against each other (vv. 16ff).

In depicting Jesus as the Lamb, this detail of the interpretation continues the emphasis on his death and resurrection that is central to the Christological portrait in the book of Revelation. It also reflects the uniquely Christian understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), whose suffering and death was altogether contrary to the traditional Messianic figure-types in Judaism at the time. Jesus, in his earthly life, never fulfilled the traditional role, for example, of the David-ruler figure, who would subdue and punish the wicked nations. This was reserved for the time of his future return; even so, it is rarely mentioned in the New Testament; even in the book of Revelation it is, for the most part, only hinted at. At several points, the conquering Messiah of the end-time is anticipated (1:6-7; 12:10; 14:14-16ff), but is finally depicted only in the vision of 19:11-21 (to be discussed).

The three-fold reference to believers—using the adjectives klhto/$ (“called”), e)klekto/$ (“gathered out”), and pisto/$ (“trusting, trustworthy”)—is a bit curious. The context might suggest that Christians join with Jesus to do battle against the wicked nations, much as the Qumran Community seems to have imagined would take place in the great Eschatological/Messianic war (cf. especially the so-called War Scroll [1QM]). While the book of Revelation draws upon this same general tradition, it is unlikely that this is a reference to believers making war as part of the Lamb’s ‘army’. In my view, the mention of believers here brings together three important strands from the visionary narrative:

    • The idea of believers following the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4)
    • A continuation of the immediate symbolism–believers are “with” Jesus the King as his vassals, even as the horns/kings are vassals of the Sea-creature (and its head), ruling “with” him
    • The traditional motif of believers (the Elect, e)klektoi/) being gathered together to meet Jesus at his return (Mk 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:14-16; 2 Thess 2:1)

This discussion will be picked up in the next daily note, on vv. 15-18.

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November 18: Revelation 17:9-11

Revelation 7:7-18, continued

An initial interpretation of the chapter 17 vision (the Woman on the Sea-creature) was given in verses 7-8 (discussed in the previous note); it is explained in more detail here in verses 9ff. Given the challenges and difficulties in understanding the rich symbolism of the book’s visions, special care should be given to those few passages, in the book itself, where an interpretation is provided. It is somewhat surprising that more attention is not given to these verses for an explanation of the Creature (or “Beast”) from the Sea as a symbol. A careful examination would all but eliminate some of the more outlandish lines of interpretation that have been offered in recent times. We might echo the opening words of the heavenly Messenger in verse 9: “Here a mind holding wisdom (is needed)”.

Verse 9

“Here a mind holding wisdom (is needed). The seven heads are seven mountains, at which (place) there the woman sits upon them. And they are (also) seven kings…”

They Messenger states the matter clearly: the seven heads of the Sea-creature represent seven mountains and also seven kings. Let us consider each of these.

Mountains—Before rushing into fanciful explanations in attempts to identify these “mountains” (or “hills”, o&rh), one ought to first examine carefully what the imagery would have meant to the author and original readers of the book. Anyone living in the Roman Empire during the latter part of the first-century A.D. likely would have been familiar with the representation of Rome as a woman seated on seven hills. It is clearly depicted so on many coins of the period (cf. the example here below).

Thus most readers of the book would have recognized the symbolism as referring to the Roman Empire. The “seven hills” of Rome itself was a traditional designation, already well-established by the end of the first century (e.g., Propertius, Elegies 3.111.57; Ovid, Tristia 1.5.69-60; Statius Silvae 4.1.6; cf. Koester, p. 677, 690). Though the specific identification of exactly seven hills has varied somewhat (cf. the diagram below), the tradition of seven dominates, being much more significant than the geographical data.

However, while the identification with Rome is clear enough, this does not represent the full extent of the symbolism. In both ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman tradition, mountains were symbolic of earthly kingdoms and their kings. In the prior note on the seventh bowl-vision (16:17-21), I discussed how this symbolism applied to the Judgment of the nations, along with the image of “Babylon” as the “Great City”. Both the waters of the Sea and the mountains of the Earth represent the worldly power of the nations in its wicked and evil aspect. We might note, in this regard, some interesting examples from Greco-Roman and Jewish literature, such as in Dio Chrysostom (Oration 1.78-84) where tyranny is personified as a woman sitting on a mountain. According to the imagery of 1 Enoch 18:6-8 (also 24:1ff) there are seven mountains in heaven where God’s throne is located; an important (eschatological) theme in 1 Enoch involves the failure of the wicked nations (and their rulers) to acknowledge properly the authority of God, seeking instead to take over His rule on earth themselves. Cf. Koester, p. 677.

Kings—This corresponds entirely with the mountain-symbolism, as noted above. More importantly, this line of interpretation follows that of the vision in Daniel 7, though there it is the horns of the creature, rather than its head(s), which represent particular rulers of the kingdom (as also here in vv. 12ff). With regard to the specific relationship between mountain and king, there are two possible ways that the imagery may be understood:

    • Each mountain represents a kingdom (i.e. nation or city-state), along with its ruler (king)—the seven collectively represent the nations as a whole, and/or a sequence of nations (as in the visions of Daniel 2 and 7)
    • As the seven mountains represent the seven hills of Rome, so the kings are Roman emperors

The second option better fits the immediate context of the interpretation in chap. 17.

Verse 10

“…the five are fallen, the one is, the other (has) not yet come—and, when he should come, it is necessary for him to remain (only) a little (while).”

The wording here plays on that of verse 8, referring to the Sea-creature as one who “was, and is not, and is about to (come…)”. As I discussed in the previous note, that phrase is an evil parody of the description of God Himself (as well as Jesus Christ) in 1:4,8; 4:8 (also 11:17; 16:5). Now the same phrase is given a new interpretation in terms of earthly kingdoms and kings. This is in keeping with the symbolism of the book, whereby many symbols have both heavenly and earthly aspects. Here the ‘heavenly’ aspect of the Sea-creature, representing the forces of evil, lies in its opposition to God, imitating the Divine power and presence so as to lead the entire world astray. On the earthly level, this reflects the influence and control of nations (and their kings) by the same forces of evil. For the readers of the book of Revelation, the current pinnacle of earthly power, ruling a vast empire, is Rome, the city on seven hills. As such, most critical commentators would identify the first six “kings” in verse 10 with first-century Roman emperors. The wording of the text itself indicates that five kings have died (“fallen”), and one is currently alive and ruling (“is”). On this basis, various attempts have been made to identify the six kings with specific emperors; of these, two are the most viable, depending upon when the book was written (cf. Koester, p. 73):

    1. Augustus
    2. Tiberius
    3. Gaius (Caligula)
    4. Claudius
    5. Nero (54-68 A.D.)
    6. Galba (68-69 A.D.)
    1. Gaius (Caligula)
    2. Claudius
    3. Nero
    4. Vespasian (69-79 A.D.)
    5. Titus (79-81 A.D.)
    6. Domitian (81-96 A.D.)

The first option, which assumes a date for the book of c. 69 A.D., has several advantages:

    • It includes all of the 1st-century emperors to that point, beginning with Augustus
    • Nero is the last of the five who died, which would give special emphasis to the idea that he might return
    • The brief reigns of four emperors in 68-69 could reflect the expectation that the coming emperor would reign only a “little while”

Most critical commentators would not date the book quite so early, preferring a time closer to 90-95 A.D., during the reign of Domitian. This would be the second option above, which may be preferred for the following reasons:

    • The period begins with the reign of Gaius (Caligula), the most notoriously wicked of the emperors (along with Nero); it thus marks the period of Imperial rule as especially wicked and opposed to God.
    • It allows more time for the return-of-Nero legends to develop and influence the Sea-creature imagery in chaps. 13ff
    • It retains a climactic position for the destruction of Jerusalem (and the Temple), an important eschatological keystone (and time indicator) for early Christians
    • The limited persecution indicated in the book would seem best to fit the reign of Domitian, and a late first-century time-frame
Verse 11

“And the wild animal, that was and is not, even he (himself) is the eighth (king), and is out of the seven, and leads under [i.e. goes away] into ruin.”

This is perhaps the most important part of the interpretation, and it shows rather clearly, I think, how this unusual symbolism fits together. It reflects a line of tradition expressed some time earlier (by Paul) in 2 Thessalonians. I have discussed the famous eschatological passage in 2 Thess 2:1-12 as part of an article in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. I would isolate the basic tradition as follows, guided by the expressions in 2 Thess 2:6-7ff:

    • “the (thing) holding down (power)”:
      The Roman Imperial government, embodying the “secret of lawlessness” currently at work in the world
      = the Woman on the Sea-creature as the “secret” of the forces at evil in the world, along with the first five heads (kings) of the creature
    • “the (one) holding down (power)”:
      The current/reigning Roman emperor, who soon will be removed (i.e. taken “out of the middle”)
      = the sixth king who currently is, and/or the seventh who is coming
    • “the lawless (one)”:
      A Satanic, demonic-inspired ruler (emperor) who will control all people
      = the eighth king

Based on the wickedness of the Roman Imperial government, manifest especially in several of the emperors (Gaius, Nero), it was easy enough for early Christians to envision an even more wicked ruler, following after the pattern of Gaius and/or Nero, coming to power over the Empire. The Old Testament Scriptures had already provided the eschatological template for this figure, from the visions in Daniel 7 and 9 (and again in chaps. 11-12), referring primarily to the historical figure of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. At the same time, other nation-oracles played on the same general idea of a wicked foreign ruler who speaks and acts against God, and who might dare to assume the role and authority of God on earth. In certain strands of Jewish tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D., it is the Evil One himself (i.e. Belial) who is embodied in the form of this wicked end-time ruler. Ultimately this is the basis for the “Antichrist” tradition among early Christians, a subject I will be discussing in detail in an upcoming article. I would maintain that both 2 Thessalonians and the book of Revelation attest a belief, among Jews and Christians of the period, that the final (Imperial) ruler of the end-time will be a truly demonic figure, if not Belial himself.

Because this idea is so critical to the interpretation of the vision in chapter 17, I feel it is necessary to discuss the matter a bit further, which I will do, in the next two notes, beginning with an exposition of vv. 12-14.

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

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October 26: Revelation 13 (summary)

Summary of the Two Visions in Rev 13:1-18

As a way of summarizing the results of the study (in these notes) on the visions of Revelation 13, we will attempt to give greater clarity to the symbolic figures of the Dragon, Sea-creature, and Earth-creature, and the relationship between the three—how the author/visionary likely understood them and what they would have meant to the first readers of the book.

Like nearly all of the symbols in the book of Revelation, these are complex and function at different levels of meaning, being drawn from multiple strands of tradition. I would isolate four aspects, or sources, in particular.

Mythological. There can be no real doubt that the figures of the Dragon and the creature from the Sea are drawn from ancient Near Eastern myth—specifically, tales of a great conflict between God and the Sea. This is a cosmological myth, meaning that it relates to the creation of the universe and the establishment of the current created order. The personified Sea represents the primordial waters, a dark and chaotic mass, which, according to the basic ancient Near Eastern cosmology, was the original state of the universe prior to the establishment of the created order by the Deity (cp. Genesis 1:2, etc). The subduing and defeat of the Sea was, in many ways, the central event of establishing order, and, with it, the Deity’s control over the life-giving waters. There are vestiges of this common cosmological myth throughout the Old Testament, but only two more or less direct allusions, in Psalm 74:13-14 and Isa 27:1 (cf. also Job 26:13) The form-pattern of the Dragon and Sea-creature in Revelation 12-13, the Serpent-figure with seven heads, is similarly found in a variety of ancient myths, most notably in the Canaanite Baal Epic—the Sea’s ally L£t¹n¥ (OT /t*y`w=l!, Leviathan). I discuss this myth-type in a separate article (in the “Ancient Parallels” series).

Typological. The Earth-Sea image paradigm in Revelation 12-13 is envisioned as two distinct realms, located side by side with a boundary in between. The Dragon is situated on a strip of territory on the boundary between the two (12:18). This dual-construct is both spatial/visual and conceptual. And, it would seem that, conceptually, the “Earth” represents the realm populated by human beings, i.e. the inhabited world as we know it. On the other hand, the “Sea” in this regard is a more complex symbol, one which relates to the mythological aspect discussed above. As a type, the “Sea” represents the realm of chaos, danger, disorder, and violence at the border of the known world. As such it has a typological connection with the forces of evil and death. In Old Testament tradition, this is expressed by the tumult of raging, destructive waters which threaten people living nearby. This violent tumult served as a fitting symbol for the military attack of enemy nations, along with the chaos/disorder that ensues from it. Thus the Sea (and its waters) was frequently used in the Prophets as an image of the danger posed to Israel, etc, from the surrounding nations (and their rulers)—cf. Isa 8:7; 17:12-13; Jer 46:7-8; 51:55). Ultimately, however, it is YHWH with his control over the waters who has control over these “raging waters” of the nations (Isa 28:2; Jer 10:13; 51:16; Ezek 26:19).

Scriptural Tradition. The visions in chapter 13 also draw on specific Scripture passages, contributing both to the essential shape of the visions, as well to a number of particular details. These have already been discussed, but we may summarize here again the most noteworthy examples:

    • The framework of the visions themselves comes from the Daniel 7 vision (vv. 2-8, 15-25)
    • The blasphemous speaking and arrogance of the Sea-creature (13:5-6ff), with its persecution of the righteous/believers, is a reflection of the specific ruler-figure prophesied in Daniel 7:25; 9:26-27; 11:36ff—generally regarded as referring to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it was interpreted by early Christians as a future/eschatological reference to their own time (Mark 13:14; 2 Thess 2:3-12)
      • This figure is part of a wider Old Testament tradition of the boastful/arrogant foreign ruler who would put himself in the position of God (cf. the various nation-oracles in the Prophets, esp. Isa 14:13ff and Ezek 28:2ff)
    • The image of the Sea-creature (13:13-15) reflects Nebuchadnezzar’s statue in the Daniel 3 episode
    • The mark of the Sea-creature (vv. 16-18), as a contrast to the mark on the faithful believers (7:3; 14:1), likely alludes to Ezekiel 9:4ff
    • The Earth-creature functions as a miracle-working false prophet (v. 13), an antitype of the prophet Elijah (allusions to the Elijah traditions, 1 Kings 18:24, 37-38; 2 Kings 1:10-12)

Historical Context. The author and his readers lived in Asia Minor, in a province of the Roman Empire. As such, the historical context of Roman imperial rule certainly influenced the symbolism of the visions. This is true of many details in the vision; but let us consider more broadly the figures of the two creatures coming from the Sea and Earth, respectively. With an understanding of the Earth as the realm of the inhabited world (cf. above), Roman rule at the end of the first century A.D. practically extended to the furthest reaches of the earth, as known by people at the time. However, the association of Rome with the sea is more significant for an understanding of the vision. The Roman empire’s power was largely the result of its control of the sea, both militarily and commercially. So complete was their dominion over the Mediterranean, in particular, that the Romans called it “our sea” (mare nostrum). In territories such as Asia Minor (especially in cities and regions nearer the coast), people would certainly have associated the establishment of Roman control as coming by way of the adjoining Sea (as in the visions of Rev 13). In Jewish tradition, Rome was identified with the ancient maritime power of the Kittim (originally referring to Phoenician influence in the Mediterranean, including the island of Cyprus); similarly, in 2/4 Esdras, generally contemporary with the book of Revelation, Rome is depicted symbolically as a great creature (an eagle) from the Sea (11:1). Cf. Koester, pp. 569, 580.


Let us now bring these different strands together and see how these symbolic figures relate in the setting of the visions.

The Dragon. The “Fabulous Creature” (dra/kwn), a snake-like hybrid creature with seven heads, represents the forces of evil, and is explicitly identified with the Evil One (Devil/Satan) in the text (12:9), so there is little question about its meaning.

The Sea-Creature. The creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up from the Sea clearly resembles the Dragon, having a similar appearance. Moreover, the Dragon’s presence at the edge of the Sea, along with the Sea-creature following the Dragon in its “making war” against believers, shows that it acts under the influence of the Dragon—that is, under the control of Satan and the forces of evil. The mythological, typological, and Scriptural aspects of the symbolism (cf. above) would have identified this creature from the Sea as an opponent/adversary of God, and the details of the visions bear this out, especially in the creature’s persecution of the people of God (believers). However, the realm of this creature is the Sea, not the Earth—that is to say, its normal realm is not that of the inhabited world (of human beings). In terms of the historical context, this aspect is realized in the sense that this creature represents a foreign power (i.e. the Roman empire) coming to the land (i.e. Asia Minor) from the sea. In the Daniel 7 vision, the beasts coming up out of the sea are specifically interpreted as kingdoms, and this may be inferred here as well, though not made explicit as such until later in the book. Many commentators believe that the detail of the head which was healed/restored from an apparent fatal blow is an allusion to the legend of Nero’s return.

The Earth-Creature. The creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up from the Earth has a different appearance, more closely resembling a normal earthly creature (a lamb). Only the detail of its two horns, and the way that it speaks (like the Dragon) indicate its evil character. If the Daniel 8 vision is in view, then the Earth-creature also represents an earthly king/kingdom, but one more precisely localized regionally and in historical terms. Based on the symbolism of the Earth here as the inhabited world of human beings, we must envision an actual earthy kingdom or government. In the historical context of the book (and the Roman empire), the creature would represent the functioning local governments of Asia Minor. However, since the Earth-creature acts to establish the rule of the Sea-creature (on earth), this would mean the local administration insofar as it acts under the authority of the Roman government, to establish the imperial rule in the provinces. On a broader level of symbolism, the Earth-creature represents the earthly manifestation of mythic-evil power. The Earth-creature is a miracle-working false prophet who deceives people with supernatural power.

The Image of the Sea-Creature. Ultimately it is through the presence of the living image of the Sea-creature that the rule of the Sea-creature is established on earth. The people inhabiting the earth construct the image, and it is then empowered by the evil ‘magic’ of the Earth-creature. It is the image of the Sea-creature, and not the Earth-creature, that commands the people on earth. This is an important aspect of the dynamic which is not always understood by readers (and is obscured in many translations). The allusion to idolatry is clear enough—i.e. an earthly image of mythic-evil power—but it is the Scriptural and historical aspects which are more prominent, especially (1) the Nebuchadnezzar statue (and other Danielic traditions), and (2) as a representation of Roman imperial administration. Both lines of tradition essentially relate to earthly ruling powers which seek to establish obedience and veneration from the populace as a means of rule. Most commentators correctly identify a strong allusion to the contemporary Imperial cult, well-established and widespread in the provinces by the end of the first century A.D. That, indeed, should be seen as the primary reference. The cult was manifest both in the civic/political realm (images, temples, public celebrations) and the commercial (the mark/stamp on coinage, etc). Believers would be confronted with these cultic symbols and associations on a regular basis, part of a recognized atmosphere of pervasive evil and conflict (i.e. opposition to God and Christ), even if it did not necessarily result in believers being arrested or put to death. The connection of the Sea-creature (and its image) with Rome and the Imperial cult is made more precise in subsequent visions, which will be examined in due course.

An interpretation of these symbols with the contemporary situation of Roman Imperial rule in Asia Minor seems clear enough. This is surely not the full extent of the symbolism; however, even commentators who adopt a modern-futurist approach to the visions (and those in Daniel), recognize the allusions to the Roman Empire (thus the various theories regarding a new or “revived” Roman Empire in modern times). An examination of these various interpretative approaches and systems must wait until the conclusion of this series of notes, but it is well to begin widening the scope of our study, especially as we will face increasingly complex and difficult issues involving the remaining visions of the book. This I hope to do, starting with the upcoming notes on chapter 14.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Pt 3)

Part 3: “Day of the Lord”: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

This discussion is on the second of two eschatological sections in 1 and 2 Thessalonians dealing specifically with “the day of the Lord” (h(me/ra kuri/ou). The first, 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, was discussed in Part 2; for a study of the other eschatological passages in the Thessalonian letters, cf. Part 1 and the special note on 1 Thess 2:14-16. It is worth surveying, however briefly, the background of this expression “day of the Lord”.

The Day of the Lord—the “Day of YHWH”

The expression “day of the Lord” (h(me/ra kuri/ou) in the New Testament was inherited by early Christians from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition. The original expression in Hebrew is hw`hy+ <oy, “day of YHWH”. It developed among the Israelite Prophets of the 8th-5th centuries B.C., especially in the context of the various nation-oracles preserved in the Prophetic books. The expression referred to a time of judgment (i.e. punishment) which YHWH would bring upon the various peoples—including his own people Israel. Originally, the usage was not eschatological, though it did indicate an imminent judgment that would come in the (near) future. Gradually, the expression took on more eschatological significance, something we begin to see already in the (later) Prophets. The “Day of YHWH” would be framed as a judgment on the surrounding nations, collectively, coinciding with the deliverance/rescue of God’s people—the faithful ones, at least—at some future time. The key occurrences of the expression in the Prophets are: Isaiah 13:6; Amos 5:18-20; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7-8, 14; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; and Malachi 4:5.

The corresponding expression in the New Testament is actually relatively rare, occurring just 5 times—Acts 2:20 (citing Joel); 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10. However, it is implied in many other passages, often using the shorthand “the day”, or the Christian formulation “the day of Christ”, etc. As such, Paul references it frequently; the various occurrences will be discussed throughout these articles on the Eschatology of Paul. We have already examined its use in 1 Thess 5:2 (Part 2 of this article), where it provides clear evidence for the uniquely Christian dimension given to the expression—namely, the end-time coming (parousia) of Jesus back to earth. Three components, or lines of tradition, helped to create this distinct interpretation of the “day of the Lord” among early Christians:

    • The Messianic traditions derived from Malachi 3:1ff; Daniel 7:13-14; 12:1ff, etc, which variously express the idea of a divine/heavenly representative of YHWH appearing to rescue His people and usher in the Judgment.
    • The firm belief in Jesus as the Messiah (“Anointed One”), especially his identification with the Davidic ruler and heavenly deliverer figure-types. Since Jesus did not fulfill all that was expected/prophesied of these Messianic figures during his time on earth, he would have to return at some future time to do so. This naturally coincided with the divine-representative motif above.
    • The eschatological “Son of Man” sayings of Jesus, in which he identifies himself with this heavenly figure who will appear at the end time.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

So it is that we turn to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, one of the most famous (and difficult) eschatological passages in the New Testament. Outside of the Eschatological Discourse, and the various visions in the book of Revelation, it is perhaps the only passage which offers any detailed information about end-time events that were expected to occur prior to the coming of Jesus. On the one hand, the basic scenario described is clear enough; at the same time, however, for Christians and other readers today, it is highly problematic (and controversial), for two main reasons:

    • Much of the wording and syntax used by the author (Paul) is difficult to intepret; at several points, the basic meaning and translation continue to be hotly disputed.
    • As with other examples of the imminent eschatology of early Christians, it is hard to square with our vantage point today, from which we must take into account the passing of 1,900+ years. However, this aspect of the modern interpretive problem is even more acute in 2 Thess 2:1-2, since it, like the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, involves the Jerusalem Temple, a building which was destroyed in 70 A.D.
Verses 1-2

“I would ask of you, brothers, over the (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, and our gathering together at (that time) about him, unto your not being shaken [i.e. for you not to be shaken] from (the) thought—not through a spirit (speaking), and not through a (normal) account, and not through a (message) sent upon (you) as (though it were) through us—as (if it were) that the Day of the Lord has (now) stood in (on you).”

Paul makes use here of fairly complex syntax, which can perhaps be a bit misleading or confusing when rendered literally (as I have attempted to do here). To bring out the basic line of the statement, the intervening modifying clause has been highlighted above. We might restate the principal statement, in more conventional English, as follows:

“I would ask of you, brothers, regarding the coming of our Lord Yeshua (to us) and our gathering together around him, that you would not be shaken by thinking…that the Day of the Lord is now present.”

The verb in the last clause of verse 2 is e)ni/sthmi (“stand in”), perfect e)ne/sthken (“has stood in”, i.e. entered), similar in meaning to h&ggiken (“has come near”). In other words, the idea is that the “Day of the Lord” has now come, and the Thessalonians are experiencing it. Paul rather forcefully urges them that they should not be shaken by this thought, since it is not correct. Much has been made of the supposed eschatological issue being addressed here, with considerable speculation by commentators. For my part, the matter seems clear and simple enough, in light of the previous message in 1:6-10 (discussed in Part 1). The suffering and persecution experienced by the Thessalonians is considered to be part of the end-time distress facing believers (according to the imminent eschatology held by Paul, along with most Christians at the time). Apparently, some were referring to this as the “Day of the Lord” (cf. above), indicating, it would seem, a lack of understanding of the precise meaning of the expression. The “Day of the Lord” refers ostensibly to the end-time Judgment on the wicked, not believers. While Christians will experience suffering during the end-time period of distress, the “Day of the Lord”, as such, represents the moment of deliverance for them, even as it is the moment of judgment/punishment for the wicked (non-believers). It also coincides with the appearance of Jesus, who, as God’s Anointed, will usher in the great Judgment.

All of this was generally explained by Paul in 1:6-10, but now he gives a more precise formulation, to the effect that the “Day of the Lord” will not occur until the return of Jesus. He also goes on (in 2:3ff) to explain something of the specific events expected to take place during the period of distress. While he and his audience are thought to be living in this period, it is not yet over; certain things are yet to happen, though they could occur suddenly, at any time.

(On the highlighted clause above, see the concluding note at the end of this article.)

Verses 3-4

“No one should deceive you (then), not by any turn! (For it is) that, if there should not first come the standing away from (the truth) [a)postasi/a]—(by this I mean that) the man of lawlessness [a)nomi/a] should be uncovered, the son of ruin [a)pw/leia], the (one) stretching out against and lifting (himself) over all (thing)s counted as God or (worthy of) reverence, (even) as to his sitting in the shrine of God, showing (of) himself from (this) that he is God.”

As noted above, it would seem that some among the Thessalonians were saying that the experience of suffering and persecution meant that the “Day of the Lord” had come. Paul warns forcefully that they should not be deceived (vb e)capata/w) into thinking this. In my view, the importance of this point for Paul is that the “Day of the Lord” signifies the end-time Judgment that awaits the wicked, and the precise moment for that has not yet come. Paul begins to explain this with a conditional sentence that he never finishes: “(For it is) that if there should not first come a standing away from (the truth)…”. If we were to complete the thought, it would presumably be something like “…then the Day of the Lord cannot come“. Instead of finishing the sentence, he expounds the significance of this “standing away” (a)postasi/a, often transliterated in English as “apostasy”).

This noun is extremely rare in the New Testament, occurring just twice, the only other instance is found in Acts 21:21 where it is used in the religious sense of departing from the truth (and from God); this also characterizes the rare usage in the LXX as well. However, a)postasi/a can also be used in the political sense of standing away from an agreement, with the more forceful and violent connotation of “rebellion”, etc. Here the reference is to a widespread departure from God—not only from the true Christian (and Jewish) belief, but even in the more general sense of reverence or recognition of anything divine at all. As bad as things might be in society at the time of writing, it was soon expected to become much worse.

This dramatic “standing away” is associated with the coming of a particular (ruling) figure, referred to by a pair of titles:

    • “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$)
      [Some manuscripts instead read “man of sin” …th=$ a(marti/a$.]
    • “the son of ruin/destruction” (o( ui(o\$ th=$ a)pwlei/a$)

The noun a)nomi/a (literally something, or the condition of, being “without law” [a&nomo$]) is relatively common in both the LXX and the New Testament, though appearing in the latter only 15 times. It is used by Jesus in the Matthean version of the Eschatological Discourse (24:12), and several other instances where there is a definite eschatological context (Matt 13:41; 1 John 3:4). It tends to be used in the general sense of wickedness and violation of the proper order of things established by God (and society).

Here the expressions “man of lawlessness” and “son of ruin/destruction” likely reflect the Old Testament “son[s] of Beliyya’al” (and “man/men of Beliyya’al”). The derivation of the Hebrew lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al) remains uncertain, but it generally signifies an association with death, chaos, disorder, and may also reflect a mythological personification of Death/Chaos itself. A “son of Beliyya’al” refers to someone who acts in a manner characteristic of Beliyya’al, violating the social and religious order of things, tending toward wickedness and violence (and destined to meet a bad or violent end). On several occasions, Hebrew lu^Y~l!B= is translated in the LXX by a)nomi/a (or the related a)no/mhma), “without law, lawlessness”. In 2 Cor 6:14f, a)nomi/a is parallel with Beli/ar, a variant transliteration in Greek (i.e. Beli/al, Belial) of Hebrew lu^Y~l!B=. In the Qumran texts and other Jewish writings of the period, Belial/Beliar is a title for the Evil One (i.e. the Devil/Satan), but is also used in the eschatological context of an evil/Satanic figure or ruler who will appear at the end-time. As such, it fed into the early Christian “Antichrist” tradition, and is almost certainly in view here as well.

This person is also characterized by the participial phrase:

    • “the one (who is)…upon every thing counted as God or revered”; two verbal participles fill the ellipsis:
      — “laying/stretching out against” [a)ntikei/meno$]
      — “raising/lifting (himself) over” [u(perairo/meno$]

Thus, in two different directions, he challenges the Divine. This is dramatically depicting by the image of this “man of lawlessness” sitting in the Temple:

“…(even) as to his sitting in the shrine of God, showing (of) himself [i.e. demonstrating] from (this) that he is God.”

In many later manuscripts, this pretension to deity is made even more clear with the addition of w($ qeo/n (“as God”): “…sitting as God in the shrine of God”. According to the ancient religious worldview, temples were the dwelling places of God, especially the sanctuary or inner shrine, where the specific image/manifestation of the deity was located. For the Jerusalem Temple, the inner shrine housed the golden box (“ark”) which represented the seat or throne of YHWH. Thus, by sitting in the shrine, the “man of lawlessness” puts himself in the place of God. The significance of this image from the standpoint of New Testament eschatology will be discussed in a separate note.

Verses 5-7

“Do you not remember that, (in) my being yet (facing) toward [i.e. when I was still with] you, I related these (thing)s to you? And now you have seen the (thing) holding down (power) unto [i.e. leading toward] the uncovering of him in his (own) time. For the secret of lawlessness already works in (the world), only until the (one) holding down (power) now comes to be out of the middle.”

Apparently Paul had previously discussed these things with the Thessalonian congregations, but they may not have entirely understood his teaching. In my view, Paul likely held to a traditional eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. I will be discussing this in the aforementioned supplemental note; on the Eschatological Discourse, cf. my earlier 4-part article in this series. Verses 6-7 are notorious and represent for commentators one of the most difficult and debated passages in the New Testament. I have discussed the verses in some detail in an earlier article, and here will summarize the results of that study.

    • The verb kate/xw literally means “hold down”. It can be used either in the transitive sense of holding someone down (i.e. restraining them), or the intransitive sense of holding down a position or control. In my view, the latter best fits the context of the passage.
    • This verb is used here twice, as two articular participles—one neuter (to\ kate/xon, “the [thing] holding down”) and one masculine (o( kate/xwn, “the [one] holding down”). The latter is correctly understood as a person. The neuter expression refers to the “secret [musth/rion] of lawlessness”, characterizing the current time prior to the rise of the Man of Lawlessness, while the masculine refers to a person “holding down power” during this same time.
    • Lawlessness already prevails in this current time (i.e. the end-time), but in a secret way, so that many people (i.e. believers) are not always immediately aware of its power and influence—i.e. it does not operate in the open. With the appearance of the “Lawless One” (= Man of Lawlessness) the cover will be removed, and lawlessness will no longer work in a hidden manner.
    • The phrase “come to be out of the middle [e)k me/sou]” could mean either that: (a) someone will appear from the middle, or (b) someone will be taken out of (i.e. removed) from the middle. The latter is to be preferred, and understood of the one “holding down power” prior to the appearance of the Lawless One.
    • Probably the reference here is to the current Roman emperor and his imperial administration. If Paul is indeed the author (writing c. 50 A.D.), then the current emperor would be Claudius, but the same basic idea would apply even if the letter were pseudonymous (as some critics think) and/or written at a later time. He may be anticipating the sudden rise of an emperor far more wicked, along the lines of Gaius (Caligula) who embodied and prefigured some of the same characteristics. This wicked ruler would either follow the current emperor or appear sometime soon thereafter. However, it should be made clear that he will be no ordinary emperor or ruler.
Verses 8-10

“And then the lawless (one) will be uncovered, whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up/away [i.e. destroy] with the spirit/breath of His mouth and will make inactive in the shining of his coming along [parousi/a] upon (the earth), (and) whose coming along is according to the working of (the) Satan in him in all lying power and signs and marvels, and in all (the) deceit of injustice for the (one)s going to ruin, against whom (it is that) they did not receive the love of the truth unto their being [i.e. so that they might be] saved.”

This is another long and complex sentence, with a modifying intermediate statement, which can cause considerable confusion when not read carefully. Again I have highlighted the intermediate portion so as to make clear the primary line of the sentence. The point of confusion is in the sequence of the Lord’s coming (parousia) followed immediately by the coming (parousia) of the Lawless One. In Greek, this portion reads:

th=$ parousi/a$ au)tou= ou! e)stin h( parousi/a
“…of his coming to be alongside, of whom the coming to be alongside is…”

One might easily misread the relative pronoun ou! (“of whom, whose”) as referring to the Lord (Jesus), when in fact it refers back to the Lawless One. If we were to translate the primary line of the sentence, in more conventional English, it might be:

“And then the Lawless One will be uncovered… and (his) coming is according to the working of Satan, in all power and false signs and wonders, and in all the deceit of injustice for the ones perishing, (those) who did not receive the love of the truth so that they would be saved.”

The nouns e)pifanei/a (“shining forth upon”) and parousi/a (“[com]ing to be alongside”) both were common early Christian terms for the end-time appearance of Jesus on earth. The same noun parousi/a (parousia) is here also applied to the Lawless One, clearly indicating that his “coming” is an evil parody of Jesus’ return. And, just as the exalted Jesus will come with power and glory, so this Lawless One comes with great power, given to him by the working of Satan. There will be supernatural events and miracles associated with the Lawless One; they are called “false” (yeu=do$) not because they are illusory, but because they deceive people into thinking that they come from a Divine source. Paul, like most Christians of the time, would have admitted the reality of Satanic-inspired miracles.

The use of the verb de/xomai (“receive”) in verse 10 can also be misleading, as though implying that, for those deceived by the Lawless One, it was from God that they did not receive the “love of the truth”. Rather, the middle voice here indicates that it was they themselves who were unwilling to accept (i.e. love) the truth. God’s action in this regard is described in the verses that follow.

Verses 11-12

“And, through this, God will send to them (something) working wandering in (them), unto their trusting th(at which is) false, (so) that they might be judged, all the (one)s not trusting in the truth but thinking good of injustice (instead).”

Here, in verses 11-12, we finally have described the coming of the “Day of the Lord”, i.e. when God acts to judge/punish the wicked. The beginning of this Judgment is that the wicked—all who did not trust in the truth of the Gospel—will be made (by God) to trust in something false instead. The implication is that they will trust in the Lawless One. There is here no mention of persecution of believers by the Lawless One, but this is likely to be inferred, based on parallels in the Eschatological Discourse and Revelation 13, etc. The period of the Lawless One’s rule presumably will be short, but characterized by intense and widespread wickedness and injustice, though, in all likelihood, those deceived by him would not be aware of this negative aspect. The period is brought to an end with the coming of Jesus (“the Lord”), who will destroy the Lawless One (v. 8, described in Messianic language from Isa 11:4b, etc).

There can be no doubt that the description of the Lawless One / Man of Lawlessness relates in some way to the “Antichrist” tradition, even more so than the vision of the creature from the Sea in Revelation 13 (cf. the recent note on this passage). In point of fact, the actual term a)nti/xristo$ (antichristos, “against the Anointed”) is used neither in 2 Thess 2:1-12 nor Revelation 13, but occurs only in the Johannine letters (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7) where it has a rather different meaning or application. One should therefore be extremely cautious about referring to the Lawless One here simply as “the Antichrist”. However, in terms of the fundamental meaning of the word (“against the Anointed”, “in place of the Anointed”), the term a)nti/xristo$ is entirely appropriate to the description of the Lawless One, since he clearly is described in a way that imitates Jesus Christ. In his sitting in the shrine of God, the Man of Lawlessness symbolically takes the place of God and His Anointed. I will be discussing the Antichrist tradition in more detail in a special upcoming article.

Appendix: On Verse 2 and the Composition/Date of 2 Thessalonians

In verse 2 (cf. above), as part of Paul’s attempt to convince the Thessalonians that their experience of suffering/persecution did not mean that the “Day of the Lord” had come, he mentions, in summary form, three different ways they might mistakenly come to think this:

    • dia\ pneu/mato$, “through a spirit (speaking)”
    • dia\ lo/gou, “through a (normal) account”
    • di’ e)pistolh=$, “through a (message) sent upon (you)” [i.e. a message sent in writing = letter, epistle]

The first means a spirit speaking through a human oracle or prophet; since the information is basically incorrect, it could not be the Holy Spirit, but some other kind of “spirit”. The second just means ordinary human speech. The third specifically means a message sent in writing (e)pistolh/, transliterated in English as epistle). It is qualified here to include any letter claiming to be from Paul and his associates (“…as [if] through us”). Some commentators take this to mean that Paul (or the author) is referring to a letter previously sent to the Thessalonians, usually identified with 1 Thessalonians, on the assumption that it was the earlier letter. This has an important bearing both on the date of 2 Thessalonians and the precise point being made in 2 Thess 2:1-12. Both questions depend on whether one regards 2 Thessalonians as a genuine Pauline letter or as pseudonymous.

1. For commentators who accept Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, if the e)pistolh/ in verse 2 refers to 1 Thessalonians, then it is possible that the discussion in 2:1ff relates to the eschatology of the earlier letter (esp. 4:13-5:11, cf. Part 2). It is often thought that, based on the imminent eschatology in 1 Thessalonians, the Thessalonian believers—some of them, at any rate—mistakenly believed that Day of the Lord had come, or was about to come. Paul corrects their misunderstanding, pointing out that certain events still need to take place before Jesus returns.

2. Many who view 2 Thessalonians as pseudonymous believe that the author is here intentionally contradicting or ‘correcting’ the imminent eschatology of Paul in 1 Thessalonians, and that 2 Thessalonians was written, in imitation of the first letter, primarily for that purpose. It is assumed that 1 Thessalonians is being discredited (as a true account of Paul’s teaching) by the use of the phrase w($ di’ h(mw=n (“as [though it were] through us”). The author would have held an eschatological chronology comparable perhaps to the developed form of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (i.e. in Matthew and/or Luke), and likely dating from a similar period (c. 80 A.D.?). For more on the relationship between 2 Thess 2:1-12 and the framework of the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the upcoming supplemental note.

October 15: Revelation 13:5-10

Revelation 12:18-13:10 (Continued)

The first part of this vision (13:1-4), describing the “wild animal” (qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea, was examined in the previous note. If we were to outline the vision itself, it would be:

    • Appearance and description of the creature (vv. 1-4)
    • Action of the creature—making war on believers (vv. 5-8)
    • Concluding exhortation for believers (vv. 9-10)
Revelation 13:5

“And a mouth speaking great (thing)s and insults (against God) was given to him, and (the) e)cousi/a was given to him to do (this for) forty [and] two months.”

Just as the mouth (sto/ma) of the Dragon poured out destructive waters against the Woman (i.e. the People of God), so the mouth of the Sea-creature (which resembles the Dragon) sends out (“speaks”) prideful and arrogant things that are against God. Like the vision as a whole, this detail comes from Daniel 7 and the description of the fourth beast (vv. 8, 11, 25). There it is one particular horn (i.e. one king) which has such a mouth; here, it is not one horn or head, but the creature itself. Most commentators would identify the arrogant-speaking horn/king with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, particularly in light of the detail in other passages (9:24-27; 11:36-39). The description in Rev 13:5ff specifically echoes that of Dan 7:25, with the combination of three details: (1) speaking words against the Most High, (2) afflicting the holy ones, and (3) his power limited to a period of 3½ years (“time, times and half a time”).

The power to rule and act comes from the Dragon (v. 4), and yet the passive e)do/qh, “was given”, here (and in v. 7) is better understood as the so-called “divine passive” with God as the implied agent. In other words, it is God who ultimately gives to the creature, in the sense of allowing or permitting it, the ability to act as he does. The noun e)cousi/a (untranslated above) indicates both the authority and ability to do something. This authority is limited (by God) to a period of “forty-two months”, which is another way of referring to the symbolic 3½ years that marks the end-time period of distress (12:14 [Dan 7:25], etc).

Revelation 13:6

“And he opened up his mouth unto insult(s) toward God, to insult His Name and His Tent—the (one)s setting up (their) tent [i.e. dwelling] in heaven.”

As previously noted, blasfhmi/a means insult, usually in the religious sense as an insult toward/against God (i.e. “blasphemy”), often so implied but here made explicit. In particular, the creature insults God’s name and his tent (skhnh/, i.e. dwelling-place). In v. 2, the creature is said to have upon his head names insulting to God; now, it is God’s own name that he insults. These are flip sides of the same basic image. In the ancient world, as part of a quasi-magical way of thinking, a person’s name was identified closely with the person himself (or herself)—that is, as an embodiment of the essential identity, nature, and character of the person. Thus an attack on God’s name was effectively an attack on God Himself.

The “tent” of God refers back to the old tent-shrine (i.e. ‘Tabernacle’) tradition from Israelite history, realized anew in Jerusalem Temple. References to the Temple in the book of Revelation locate it in heaven, as a figure for the dwelling of God (and the People of God). At the time the book was written, the Jerusalem Temple had likely been destroyed; however, even before its destruction, there was an early Christian tendency to identify the true Temple with believers (i.e. the People of God)—both collectively and individually (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21; Rev 3:12). This was more or less done in the earlier vision of 11:1-2ff, and the identification is even more explicit here. Admittedly, in some manuscripts there is a conjunction kai/ (“and”), which makes “the ones setting up their tent in heaven” distinct from the actual “Tent” of God; however, the phrase is better viewed as an explanatory statement interpreting the Tent/Dwelling of God. It refers to all the People of God, especially in its heavenly aspect, which can encompass both Angels and believers (particularly those put to death for their faith).

Revelation 13:7

“And it was given to him to make war with the holy (one)s, and to be victorious (over) them, and e)cousi/a was given to him upon [i.e. over] every offshoot (of the human race), and (every) people and tongue and nation.”

Here again is the divine passive (e)do/qh, “it was given”), i.e. God permits/allows the creature to have control and authority over people on earth, including believers. In that the creature “makes war with the holy (one)s”, it shows that he acts as the Dragon’s ally in making war on believers (12:17), and that the visions in chapters 12 and 13 are certainly so connected. There is a different nuance of the verb nika/w (“be victorious [over]”) here compared with how it was used earlier in 12:11. There believers are said to be victorious over the Dragon, but now the Dragon is victorious over them. The latter sense of being victorious is secondary, and temporary—it refers to the creature’s ability to attack believers, leading to their imprisonment and being put to death (cf. on vv. 9-10 below). This temporary “victory” of the Dragon and his allies actually ends up in final/permanent victory for the People of God.

Again God allows the creature to have e)cousi/a over all of humankind—every race and nation—indicating his authority and governing control. This means both that: (a) the creature is allowed to attack believers everywhere, and (b) he exercises full control (and rule) over people on earth. That this generally characterizes the Roman Empire, from the standpoint and worldview of people (living in the Empire) at the time, seems clear enough. Attempts to extend the universality of the creature’s rule to cover an ethic/geographic extent of humankind that accords with our vantage point today are questionable at best. We must read the text primarily in terms of the worldview that would have prevailed at the time. Application to the situation of believers today, while important, should be a secondary concern in our interpretation.

Revelation 13:8

“And they shall kiss toward [i.e. worship] him, all the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, (every one) for whom his name is not written in the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of Life—(that) of [i.e. belonging to] the Lamb, the (one) having been slain—from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world.”

The worship/veneration of the Sea-creature (and the Dragon) was mentioned in verse 4, and likely reflects the Imperial cult that had been established, and was widespread throughout the Empire, by the end of the first century. On this, cf. the discussion in the previous note, as well as the earlier notes on the letters to the churches (chaps. 2-3). It is clear, however, that the author/seer now envisions a much more serious (and widespread) situation, whereby everyone on earth venerates the Sea-creature and his rule. Only (true) believers in Christ do not succumb to the influence and power of the creature (cf. the concluding discussion below). This is framed in terms of predestination (to use the classic theological term)—those who are true believers, and thus will not worship the Sea-creature, have had their names already written down in the “scroll of Life”. This idiom draws upon two basic lines of tradition: (1) the Old Testament image in Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28, etc, and (2) the idea of citizens, i.e. in the Greco-Roman world, being registered as belonging to a particular city. The “city” for believers in the book of Revelation, of course, is the heavenly New Jerusalem (cp. Phil 3:20ff; Heb 12:22-24). The eschatological (and Judgment) context of the “scroll of Life” image can be seen, e.g., in Daniel 12:1, and again in the book of Revelation (20:11-15; 21:27).

The syntax of v. 8b is a bit confusing, and can be read two different ways, based on how one relates the final phrase “from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world”. Does it modify the expression “the Lamb the (one) having been slain” immediately preceding, or the earlier phrase “…written down in the scroll of Life”? The first option implies that Jesus was slain (or destined to be slain) from the beginning of creation; this idea is expressed in 1 Peter 1:19-20, but is otherwise not to be found in the New Testament. The second option is to be preferred, based on the clear parallel in Rev 17:8. This means that believers have been destined for (eternal) Life since the beginning of creation. We must, however, be cautious about reading modern concepts (and questions) regarding “predestination” into passages such as this. While a basic belief in predestination is found throughout the New Testament, it goes hand in hand with another basic belief—that human beings are able to choose to accept or reject the truth (of God and Christ). Difficulties arise when attempts are made to place these two beliefs within a more detailed, systematic philosophical and theological framework; such difficulties, to be sure, remain today, and go far beyond the scope of these notes.

Revelation 13:9-10

“If any(one) holds an ear (to hear), he must hear (this). If one (is set) into being taken by spear-point, (then) he goes away into being taken by spear-point; if one (is set for) his being killed off in a sword (strike), (then so he is) to be killed off in a sword (strike). Here is (to be found) the remaining under [i.e. endurance] and the trust of the holy (one)s.”

The exhortation in verse 9 follows the pattern used at the conclusion of the letters to the congregations (2:7, etc). For the prediction in v. 10a, I have attempted to rendered it as literally as possible. The terseness of the syntax, with its repetition of phrases, makes for very awkward English. However, the basic line of expression may be paraphrased more smoothly as: “If one is destined to be taken by spear-point, he will go off captive at spear-point; if one is destined to be killed by the sword, he is killed by the sword”. This goes back to the idea of predestination in verse 8 (cf. above). Just as believers are (pre)destined for eternal Life, so they are also destined to face persecution. For many, but certainly not all, this will include both (a) imprisonment (“taken by spear-point”) and (b) being put to death (“in a sword [strike]”). The specific idiom utilizes military language, which is appropriate to the basic idea of the creature “making war” on believers.

As the concluding words make clear, it is this experience of persecution—to the point of imprisonment and death—that marks the character of true believers. This is expressed by two common terms, both of which take on greater significance in this period of testing and distress:

(1) u(pomonh/, literally “remaining under”, i.e. enduring, staying strong, keeping faith, etc. It characterizes believers in 1:9, and again throughout the letters to the churches (2:2-3, 19; 3:10). The same basic declaration here is repeated at 14:12.

(2) pi/sti$, “trust”. This of course means trust (i.e. faith) in Jesus Christ. As such, it is one of the most common Christian terms in the New Testament; however, somewhat surprisingly, it is rather rare in the book of Revelation, occurring only three other times: twice in the letters to the churches (2:13, 19) and in the parallel declaration at 14:12.

Concluding note

In conclusion of our discussion of this vision, it is worth asking whether, or to what extent, the author/seer thought that it was possible for believers to be influenced by the Sea-creature. Clearly, no true believer could actually worship the creature; but, if there was no real danger of being tempted or adversely influenced, it is hard to explain the repeated warnings and exhortations throughout the book. If we accept a basic, underlying identification with the Roman Empire and its Imperial cult, etc, then the Sea-creature represents an extension (and intensification) of something believers living in Asia Minor (and elsewhere) had to deal with on a daily basis. So pervasive was the pagan Roman (Imperial) culture, that it would have been hard for Christians to avoid, and, in doing so, there would have been consequences. Unwillingness to participate in the cultural and civic events would have put believers at odds with the society around them, even if they never ended up being imprisoned or put to death by the authorities. There are many different levels of persecution that believers may face.

Ultimately, this ties back to the idea of predestination expressed in verses 8-10 (see above). The persecution experienced by believers, as part of the time of distress, is for them a period of testing, and, indeed, this persecution will reveal just who the true believers are. Jesus says as much in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, that “the (one) remaining under [vb u(pome/nw, i.e. enduring] unto the completion, that (person) will be saved” (Mk 13:13 par). The deception from political and (pseudo-)religious leaders in the time of distress will be so great that even the Elect (i.e. true believers) might almost be led astray by it (v. 22 par). This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes on the second vision of chapter 13 (vv. 11-18).

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October 14: Revelation 12:18-13:4

Revelation 12:18-13:10

The vision in chapter 12 had a three-part structure (cf. the previous notes); in chapter 13, it is a dual-vision, of a “beast” (qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea, and the Earth, respectively. These visions in chaps. 12-13 are clearly connected, but the precise relationship depends upon how one reads the short narrative statement in 12:18. There is a small but important textual variant in this verse:

“And he stood [e)sta/qh] upon the sand of the Sea.”
“And I stood [e)sta/qhn] upon the sand of the Sea.”

The first is the reading of Ë47 and the key uncials a A C, along with significant portion of the ancient versions (Latin/Vulgate, Armenian, Ethiopic, and the Harclean Syriac). The second has the support of uncials P 046 051, is the majority reading (i.e. of most minuscules), and the Coptic and Philoxenian Syriac versions (cf. Metzger/UBS, Textual Commentary [2d edition], p. 673). Based on this second (majority) reading, the seer simply is transferred to a different visionary location to observe the next vision. The first reading, however, provides a clearer transition from the prior vision, with the verb e)sta/qh (“he stood”) certainly referring to the Dragon (dra/kwn, “Fabulous Creature”) of chap. 12. This reading is to be preferred, based on the wide geographic distribution (in the versions), and its attestation in some of the earliest/best manuscripts. What does this mean for an interpretation of the vision?

In verse 17, following the failed attack of the Dragon/Snake on the Woman in the desert (cf. the previous note on the vv. 13-17 episode), it is said that the Dragon “went (away) from there to make war with the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed”, that is, on her other children (after Jesus), i.e. believers. Reading verse 18 as a continuation of v. 17, we have an image of where the Dragon went: namely, to the seashore (lit. “the sand of the sea”). We may also infer from this that he goes to the edge of the sea as part of his intended purpose—to make war on believers. In the second episode of the chap. 12 vision (vv. 7-12, cf. the prior note), the Dragon also makes war, but in heaven. There he has heavenly allies, Angelic beings (a&ggeloi, “Messengers”) fighting on his side. Similarly, on earth, even though these rebel Angels were thrown down with him, the Dragon also has earthly allies fighting on his side.

In this regard, it is worth noting the traditional use of Dragon/Serpent or ‘sea-monster’ imagery to describe wicked or hostile earthly rulers (Ezek 29:3-6; 32:2ff; Jer 51:34, etc). Particularly significant in relation to the visions of Revelation is the allusion in the Psalms of Solomon 2:29 (mid-1st century B.C.), often thought to be part of a description of the Roman general Pompey. Nero also was compared to a serpent (Sibylline Oracles 5:28-29; Plutarch Moralia 367F). The application of this sort of imagery to the Roman Empire likely informs the symbolism of the visions here. Cf. Koester, p. 559, and the works he cites.

The Dragon positions himself at the boundary between the land and the sea; we may interpret here the “sand” (a&mmo$) as a strip of territory between the Earth and Sea, allowing him to observe (and oversee) events in both locales. The first vision in chapter 13 is focused on the Sea.

Revelation 13:1

“And I saw a wild animal [qhri/on] stepping up out of the Sea, holding ten horns and seven heads, and upon his horns (were) ten strips bound round [diadh/mata], and upon his heads (were) name[s] of insult [blasfhmi/a] (to God).” (v. 1)

The vision involves a creature that comes out of the Sea. The word qhri/on, typically translated “beast”, more properly refers to a wild animal. It is a general term, but, as many wild animals are untamed and can be dangerous, the negative aspect is certainly in view here. Let us consider each of the components of this image.

First, it comes up out of the Sea (qa/lassa). In ancient thought, the sea often symbolized chaos and disorder, including the threat to life and existence. The water of the sea/ocean frequently stood as a vast boundary at the edge of the inhabited world. It could threaten human dwelling with tidal waves and flooding, and was often dangerous for those traveling it (by boat). It was dark, with unknown depths, home to many mysterious creatures, including any number of dangerous animals and large “monsters”, all of which were only ever partially visible. Even more significant is the image of water in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology. In the beginning, there was only a dark mass of water (Gen 1:2), out of which the universe proper took shape—as a sphere (or hemisphere) surrounded by water. Cosmological myths frequently involved the deity establishing the ordered world by subduing or defeating the Sea (i.e. the primordial waters). The Sea could be personified as a human deity or by fabulous mythic creatures, often Serpent-like in appearance. I will be discussing this further in an upcoming article in the “Ancient Parallels” series.

Also relevant to the imagery here in the vision is the fact that the Roman Empire owed much of its power to its control of the sea, both from a military and commercial standpoint. The book of Revelation draws upon both of these aspects. The Mediterranean, in particular, was the Roman sea (“our sea”, mare nostrum, cf. Caesar Gallic War 5.1.2; Koester, p. 580).

However, ultimately this scene of the animal coming up out of the sea is patterned after the vision in Daniel 7:2-8. There are two features of this sea-creature’s appearance described here in verse 1:

    • “ten horns” (ke/rata de/ka)—the horn of an animal was seen as a symbol of power, being frequently used of royalty, etc, in the Old Testament (and elsewhere, cf. the Messianic significance in Lk 1:69), but here the image comes specifically from the vision of the fourth beast in Daniel 7:7ff.
    • “seven heads” (kefalai/ e(pta/)—multi-headed (including seven-headed) creatures are familiar from Near Eastern and Greco-Roman tradition, such as the Typhon/Typhoeus monster (Hesiod Theogony 821ff; Plutarch Moralia 359E, 362F, etc).

These attributes match those of the Dragon (12:3), and clearly demonstrate the sea-creature’s close relationship to the evil Serpent-figure. Subsequently, in chapter 17, these heads and horns are interpreted as seven kings (also seven hills/mountains), and ten vassal rulers, respectively. Most commentators readily accept the imagery, with the explanation in 17:9-14, as a reference to the Roman Empire, even as the fourth beast of Daniel 7 was identified with Rome already in the 1st century A.D. (cf. 2/4 Esdras 12:11). This association is generally admitted, even by those who would insist on a future (modern-day) interpretation of the visions, leading to the theory of a new or “revived” Roman Empire in our own time, occasionally identified with the current European Union, etc; however, on the whole, these represent a highly questionable attempt to reinvent the ancient setting of the book. There are sounder ways of applying the imagery of the visions to the situation of believers in modern times, as will be discussed further on in this series of notes.

There are two other features associated with the horns and heads of this creature:

    • Upon the horns: “ten strips bound around (them)” (de/ka diadh/mata)—the translation “crowns” is somewhat misleading (and inaccurate), the diadh/ma more properly referring to a strip of cloth (such as silk) wrapped completely around the head. It was a sign of kingship, but was typically not worn by the Roman emperors. This detail also matches the description of the Dragon in 12:3.
    • Upon the heads: “name[s] of insult (to God)” (o)no/ma[ta] blasfhmi/a$)—there is textual uncertainty as to whether this is a single name or multiple names; in light of the parallel in 17:3 the plural is more likely. The word blasfhmi/a generally means “insult(s)”, but in the LXX and New Testament is typically used in the religious sense of an insult to God. The parallel here with the ‘diadems’ implies that these “names” are honorific (divine) titles which properly belong to God. Cf. further on verse 4.
Revelation 13:2

“And the wild animal which I saw was like a leopard [pa/rdali$], and his feet (were) as a bear’s, and his mouth (was) as a lion’s. And the Fabulous Creature gave to it his (own) power, and also his ruling-seat and (his) great e)cousi/a.”

The hybrid animal imagery, typical of such mythic creatures, is basically a combination of the attributes of the four beasts in Daniel 7. They all represent some of the fiercest and most powerful characteristics of earthly animals. Almost certainly there is also an intentional contrast with the animal-imagery in the throne visions of chapters 4 and 5. Especially important is the detail that the Fabulous Creature (‘Dragon’), whom the sea-creature so clearly resembles, gives to it his own evil power. That is to say, it has Satanic power, according to the mythic personification of the Dragon as the Evil One and embodiment of the forces of evil. This granting of power (du/nami$) gives to the wild animal a personal life and and ability beyond even that normally possessed by such a mythic creature. This power includes both (1) the Dragon’s own qro/no$ (“ruling seat”), and (2) e)cousi/a, a word difficult to translate, but generally signifying a person’s authority and ability to act. This description is of the greatest significance, for it means that, in addition to the creature as a symbol of earthly rule (i.e. kings and emperors), it also possesses the evil power that controls and dominates the current Age.

Revelation 13:3

“And one out of his heads (was) as having been slain unto death, and (yet) his strike of death was attended to [i.e. healed]. And the whole earth wondered, (following) behind th(is) wild animal…”

From the identification of the heads as kings (i.e. emperors, cf. 17:9ff), the statement in verse 3 implies that a king/emperor has died (or seemed to die, was close to death) after being struck by a sword, but then was restored to life. This may be interpreted several ways:

    • It is an historical allusion, most likely to Nero, who suffered a violent death (Suetonius Nero 49:3-4), and after which rumors persisted that had not died or had returned from the dead. Already in the first century, a number of people had claimed to be Nero (Tacitus Histories 2.8-9; Dio Cassius 66.19.3; Suetonius Nero 57; Koester, p. 571).
    • It symbolizes the rule of the Roman Empire, in which, with the (sometimes violent) death of each emperor, a new one rises to take his place, each considered to be a new Caesar and Augustus.
    • The detail here simply exemplifies the (apparent) miracle-working power possessed by the creature, by which he is able to enthrall the world and lead it astray (cp. 2 Thess 2:9-10).

The statement may well be an allusion to an early form of the Nero-legend, but, if so, it is used here for a very distinct purpose—namely, to establish a general parallel with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The verb sfa/gw (“slay”), often used in the context of ritual (i.e. sacrificial) slaughter, occurs almost exclusively in the book of Revelation (8 of 10 occurrences in the NT). In the throne-vision of chapter 5 (vv. 6, 9, 12) it is used of the Lamb (Jesus), even as it is here in chapter 13 (v. 8). Indeed, 5:6 has the identical expression “as having been slain” (w($ e)sfagme/non). Thus the apparent death and recovery of the head/king serves as an evil parody of Jesus’ death and resurrection, even as the coming (parousia) of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2 is an evil parody of the parousia of Jesus.

When it says that “the whole earth wondered”, it is presumably due to the (miraculous) recovery of the head/king, but also in that it reflects the amazing power of the creature taken as a whole. All throughout history the occurrence of miracles (whether real or false) has caught the attention of people, causing them to follow after the gifted leaders and wonder-workers who take advantage of such miracles. However, even without any supernatural aid, the public is apt to follow after powerful political and religious leaders. To follow “behind” or “in back of” (o)pi/sw) often signifies becoming a loyal and devoted disciple or ally. Here it is said that “the whole earth” became a loyal follower, a summary description that certainly would reflect the near-universal extent of Roman rule, i.e. of the whole inhabited earth (as known to people at the time).

Revelation 13:4

“…and they kissed toward [i.e. worshiped] the Fabulous Creature, (in) that he gave the e)cousi/a to the wild animal, and they (also) kissed toward the wild animal, saying, ‘Who is like th(is) wild animal, and who is able to make war with him?'”

In addition to following after the sea-creature, the world also worships the Fabulous Creature (Dragon), the verb proskune/w (lit. “kiss toward”) being the regular NT Greek idiom for the act of worship/veneration. It might be better to say that, in becoming loyal followers of the sea-creature, the people on earth actually are worshiping the Dragon, whether they are aware of it or not. Most commentators recognize here a thinly veiled reference to the Imperial cult, well established in Asia Minor by the end of the 1st century A.D., with temples and ritual honoring the emperor, alongside other deities. Beginning with Augustus, and thereafter, the emperor was considered to be divine, referred to as both “god” and “son of god”, along with other divine (and semi-divine) titles—”lord, master, savior”, etc. A primary purpose of the Imperial religion was to establish and affirm loyalty to the Empire (and its administration), especially in the provinces. In Asia Minor, at some of the very cities addressed in the book of Revelation, the Imperial cult had a prominent position. Already in 29 B.C., a major provincial temple to Augustus and the goddess Roma (personification of Rome) was built at Pergamum, with similar kinds of temples at Ephesus and Smyrna, etc, in the years and decades following (cf. Koester, p. 582). That this Imperial worship was considered to be evil and “Satanic” by the visionary/author of Revelation is clear enough, both here and throughout the book. Indeed, Pergamum, a major site of the cult, is described as the place “where the ruling-seat of the Satan (is)” and “where the Satan puts down house [i.e. dwells]” (2:13).

Interestingly, there is no act of overt religious worship described in v. 4; rather, what is expressed is more a general attitude by the people, revealing an underlying adoration that exalts the creature in a manner that should be reserved for God. The question “Who is like th(is) wild animal?” resembles traditional expressions praising God, such as in Exodus 15:11; 1 Kings 8:23; Psalm 35:10; 71:19; 113:5, etc. Here there may also be an allusion to Ezek 27:32, foreshadowing the parodic lament in chapter 18. The idea that no one was like the emperor is a common part of the tradition panegyric honoring him; note, for example, the declaration regarding Nero calling him “Our Apollo, our Augustus… no one is victorious (over) you!” (Dio Cassius Roman History 62.20.5). This leads to a main reason for the creature being unsurpassed by all others—that he is invincible in battle: “Who is able to make war with you?”. The military success of the Roman Empire in the 1st century scarcely requires comment. Apart from some difficulties (and defeats) at the furthest borders, Roman control over the provinces was largely unchallenged. The rebellion in Judea (66-70 A.D.) was brutally crushed, along with a number of similar uprisings. Such success and ability to conquer, in the popular mind, would seem to be a sure sign of divine power and blessing at work.

The remainder of this vision (vv. 5-10) will be studied in the next daily note.

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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“Secret of Lawlessness”: 2 Thess 2:6-8; Rev 17:5, 7

Having discussed the context of the expression “secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in 2 Thess 2:7 in the previous study, here I will examine a bit further the interpretation of 2 Thess 2:6-8, as well as a similar use of the term musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7.

2 Thessalonians 2:6-8

Assuming that my analysis of vv. 6-8, and, in particular, the use of the verb kate/xw, is on the right track (cf. the previous study), it may be possible to discern something of what Paul has in mind, specifically, in this passage. Let us briefly examine each portion:

Verse 6

“Now you have seen/known the (thing) holding down (power)”—This indicates that Paul’s readers should be able to recognize what this is that currently “holds down (power)” [to\ kate/xon]. The neuter suggests that the reference is to a particular condition, situation, or tendency currently at work and in a position of power in the world.

“unto his being uncovered”—The preposition ei)$ indicates the purpose or direction (“so that”, “toward”) of the thing holding down power. It is possible that a temporal sense is also implied (“until”). The verb here is a passive infinitive of a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from, uncover”). In Greek the syntax of an infinitive + accusative can be very difficult to translate; often it is necessary to render it as a possessive + participle (or gerund) construction—as in this instance: “his being uncovered”. Perhaps a more literal translation is to be preferred: “the removing of the cover (from) him”. Clearly the “he/him” (au)to/n) is different from the thing (currently) holding down power (to\ kate/xon is neuter). The nearest reference point is the “man of lawlessness” (some MSS “man of sin”) in vv. 3-4.

“in his (own) time”—That is, when the time is right for the “man of lawlessness” to be revealed. The expression may also connote the idea that, in a sense, this time belongs to him, i.e. a ‘time of lawlessness’. For the use of kairo/$ (“time, season”) in a definite eschatological context, or suggesting a time of evil and testing, cf. Mark 1:15; 13:33 par; Matt 16:3; 26:18; Luke 4:13; 8:13; 19:44; 21:8, 24, etc; and for a similar use of “hour” (w%ra), cf. Mark 13:11, 32; 14:35, 41; Luke 12:40, 46; 22:53, etc.

Verse 7

“For the secret of lawlessness is already working in (the world)”—The adverb h&dh (“already”) indicates “even now”, currently (in Paul’s own time). On the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$), cf. the prior study. The present verb e)nerge/w means that the secret is (currently) active, i.e. at work (e&rgon), in (e)n) the world (and the present Age).

“only until the (one) holding down (power) now”—In my view, this is the best way to read this portion of the difficult clause in v. 7. The temporal aspect is indicated by the formula “only…now until” (mo/nona&rti e%w$). This means that there is someone holding down power now (currently, that is, in Paul’s time), but will only continue to do so for a (short) period of time. On a similar Pauline use of clauses with e%w$ (or w($) in the postpositive position, cf. Rom 12:3; 1 Cor 3:5; 6:4; 7:17; 2 Cor 2:4; Gal 2:10, etc (Wanamaker, p. 255).

“should come to be out of the middle”—The use of gi/nomai (“come to be”) with the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) could be taken to mean that either the “one holding down (power)” or the “lawless one” will appear in/from the midst/middle (of things?); however, the expression e)k me/sou (“out of the middle”) rather suggests someone or something being removed. When the one (currently) holding down power is ‘removed’, then the way will be clear for the lawless one to appear.

Verse 8

“and then the cover will be (removed) from the lawless (one)”—This renders quite literally the verb a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from”, “uncover”, i.e. disclose, reveal, etc); the passive form probably should be understood as a “divine passive” (with God effectively as the one who acts). The adverbial particle to/te (“then”) fills out the temporal sequence from verse 7h&dh (“already”), a&rti (“now”), to/te (“then”). The substantive adjective “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$) gives personal expression to the impersonal “lawlessness” (a)nomi/a) in v. 7, and is certainly synonymous with the “man of lawlessness” in vv. 3-4. In 1 Cor 9:21 Paul uses the adjective a&nomo$ in the specific (literal) sense of those “without the Law”—that is, without the Torah, i.e. Gentiles (cf. also Acts 2:23). Normally, however, it is used in the more general sense of persons who do not adhere to established law and custom—in society at large this means crime and rebellion (Luke 22:37), while, from a religious standpoint, typically immorality is indicated (2 Peter 2:8); in 1 Tim 1:9 both aspects are combined. The character and action of this person is described in vv. 3-4.

“whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up…in the shining (forth) of his (com)ing to be alongside upon (the earth)”—The terms e)pifa/neia (“shining upon”, i.e. appearance, manifestation) and parousi/a (“[com]ing to be along[side]”) both had a history of eschatological and apocalyptic usage by the time Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, and they are combined here, in especially exalted language for dramatic effect. The word parousi/a (parousía) in particular quickly turned into a technical term for the end-time appearance (return) of Christ. In the previous study, I commented on the intentional parallel (and contrast) drawn between the coming (parousia) of Christ and the coming (parousia) of the “lawless one”. The rest of verse 8, describing the punishment and fate of the lawless one, is drawn from the traditional language and (Messianic) imagery of Isaiah 11:4.


Here I would suggest the following thumbnail interpretation of what Paul is describing, and perhaps envisions, in vv. 6-8:

  • The secret of lawlessness—This is the power of sin, evil and opposition to God, which has been, and is currently (h&dh, “already”) at work in the world. It is a “secret” (musth/rion) in the sense that its presence and activity is largely hidden to people at large—they are unaware of it and how it functions. Also, its true nature, and full manifestation, are kept away from people—this will only be revealed at the end time. It is generally to be equated with the working of “the Evil (One)”, i.e. Satan, and the various (invisible) evil powers that control and influence the fallen world. It is also possible to view the “secret” in terms of the timing and duration of this lawless/evil period within the hidden plan/will of God (see esp. the Qumran text 1QS 4:18-19).
  • The (thing) holding down power—This is best understood as worldly power, taken as a whole, specifically the ruling power in Paul’s time: the Roman imperial government and authority (i.e., the Roman Empire). While often viewed in a negative light by early Christians (as in the book of Revelation, cf. below), the Roman Empire was not evil per se. However, the exercise of worldly power was generally seen as being opposed to the way of God and Christ. Though it is related to the “secret of lawlessness”, the thing “holding down power” (to\ kate/xon) is not identical with it.
  • The (one) holding down power—If the general identification with the Roman Empire as “the (thing) holding down (power)” is correct, then “the (one) holding down power” (o( kate/xwn) probably should be taken as a reference to the current Roman Emperor. When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians (late 40s/early 50s, c. 50 A.D.?), the ruling Emperor would have been Claudius. The Emperor would rule until such time has he “came to be (removed) from the midst”. Perhaps an imperial coup or assassination was imagined, for which there certainly had been precedents, and would hardly be surprising; however, ultimately such historical processes were controlled by God himself.
  • The lawless (one)—The removal (?) of the current ruler would allow for the “cover to be removed” (by God), thus revealing “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$). This figure would fulfill more completely the prophecies by Daniel (in 9:20-27; 11:31; 12:11, etc), of the coming wicked ruler which had already been embodied by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid-2nd century B.C. Jesus’ own eschatological teaching in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 13 par) seems to follow the same basic line of interpretation (note the allusion to Dan 9:27 in v. 14). Prior to the reign of Claudius, Gaius (Caligula) had come close to living and acting out many of these expectations; so, it was not at all unreasonable to expect that the next ruler (or one soon coming) would be even more wicked and godless. Almost certainly, from the early Christian standpoint, the idea of an Antichrist-ruler of the end-time was largely modeled after the pattern of Roman rulers such as Pompey, Gaius, Nero, and (possibly) Domitian. For more on this, cf. the discussion on Revelation 17:5, 7 below. However, Paul makes clear that this is no ordinary political ruler, but a truly evil figure, empowered and inspired by Satan.

Revelation 17:5, 7

These two references have a contextual setting that is similar, in many ways, to that of 2 Thess 2:1-11. Chapters 17-19 of Revelation serve as the climax to the division of the book which spans chapters 12-19. I outline this division as follows:

    • Chs. 12:1-14:5—The faithful (people of God), symbolized as a woman who is attacked by the dragon (and its beasts)
      • 12:1-17—Vision of the Woman giving birth; the labor pains, etc, relate to the war made on her children (believers, people of God) by the dragon (the Devil and his Messengers)
      • 12:18-13:18—Vision of the two beasts, which are ‘offspring’ of the dragon
      • 14:1-5—Vision of the 144,000, the faithful ones who have endured the dragon’s attacks (implied)
    • Chs. 14:6-16:21—Judgment of God upon the world (Babylon) and the wicked
      • 14:6-13—Vision of the (Angelic) announcement of Judgment
      • 14:14-20—Vision of the Man with the sickle, about to reap the harvest (of the Judgment)
      • 15:1-8—Heavenly vision that introduces the pouring out of God’s wrath
      • 16:1-21—Vision of the Seven Bowls of God’s wrath poured out on the world
    • Chs. 17-19—Wicked/worldly power, symbolized as a woman seated upon the beast
      • 17—Vision of the Woman (prostitute) identified as “Babylon”, with an interpretation
      • 18—Oracle (Hymn) on the fall of Babylon
      • 19:1-10—Heavenly vision and hymn (on the fall of Babylon)
      • 19:11-21—Vision of the Rider on the White Horse and the defeat of the Beast

Two women are set in (contrasting) parallel with each other—one representing the faithful people of God, the other symbolizing the wicked of the world—each flanking a great cluster of visions describing the end-time Judgment. This second woman is depicted in chapter 17 under the figure of a prostitute (pornh/). All the rulers and inhabitants of the earth are said to have had intercourse (euphemistically, “soaked from her wine”) with this prostitute (v. 2). As part of the actual vision (vv. 3-6a), we find this detail:

“…and upon the (space) between her eye(s) [i.e. her forehead] a name has been written (which is) a secret [musth/rion]: ‘Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking (thing)s of the earth'”

In Greco-Roman literature of the period we read of prostitutes adopting the names of colorful characters (e.g. Demonsthenes, Oration 59.19; Juvenal, Satires 6.123), as well as wearing bands around their foreheads (Herodotus, Histories I.199.2). In Jeremiah 3:3, the expression “forehead of a prostitute” (hn`oz hV*a! j^x^m@) to indicate blatant immorality is likely proverbial. While it is possible that a prostitute might write a name upon her forehead band, here in Rev 17:5 the name should be understood as one applied (by God) to her in the vision. The main aspect of the “secret” has to do with the identification of the prostitute as Babylon. In verse 7, the secret involves the woman herself (the Angel speaking):

“And I will utter to you the secret [musth/rion] of th(is) woman and of the beast th(at is) bearing [i.e. lifting/carrying] her, the (one) holding seven heads and ten horns.”

Here the “secret” involves the explanation or interpretation of the vision, much as the “secret of the Kingdom of God” in Mark 4:11 par involved the explanation of Jesus’ parables to his circle of followers. Of greater influence for the book of Revelation is the use of the Aramaic zr` (“secret”) in reference to the vision-interpretations given to Daniel (Dan 2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:9); in these passages God is said to reveal to Daniel the secrets hidden in the visions.

By combining the name of prostitute (“Babylon”) with the explanation of the visionary details provided in 17:7ff, it seems fairly clear that this woman is meant to symbolize the wicked/worldly power associated with Rome (i.e. the Roman Empire). An association between Rome and Babylon was already traditional by the end of the New Testament period, as indicated by the setting in other Apocalyptic writings (2/4 Esdras 3:1-2, 29-31; 16:1; 2 Baruch 10:2; 11:1; 67:7; Sibylline Oracles 5:143, 159); “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 is probably also a cipher for Rome. The association was natural, since both Rome and Babylon were the center of great empires (i.e. the Babylonian empire of the 7th/6th century B.C.), and both invaded/conquered Judea and Jerusalem, destroying the Temple in the process. The identification with Rome would seem to be confirmed by the interpretation of the beast in vv. 7ff and the imagery of the hymn in chapter 18. The explanation of the “seven horns” as “seven mountains” (v. 9) certainly suggests the seven hills traditionally connected with the city of Rome. Moreover, chapter 18 describes a great commercial empire with control of the seas. With such an identification, the “seven kings” (another interpretation of the horns) would presumably represent rulers of the Empire, five of whom have died and a sixth who is currently living (ruling?). The author and/or audience of the book may have known just who these six rulers (Emperors?) were, but today we can only guess; various proposals have been made, none of which are entirely convincing.

It is important to point out that, even if the primary association of the woman (and the beast) is with the Roman Empire, that is simply because it was the clearest and strongest manifestation of wicked/worldly power at the time that the book of Revelation was written (as in the case of 2 Thessalonians, cf. above). Clearly, the evil power and influence of the beast(s)—and, in turn, the dragon (identified with the Devil/Satan)—transcends the specific connection with Rome. The heads/horns of the beast represent power and authority which rightly belongs to God, but which the beast and the worldly rulers he controls have appropriated for themselves. Similarly, God is typically seen as residing upon a mountain in ancient (Near Eastern) religious and mythological imagery; the association with the symbolic (sacred/divine) number seven only strengthens this idea. There are two interesting (contemporary) examples in this regard:

    • In 1 Enoch 18:6-8 the heavenly vision includes seven great mountains, the central of which stretches “to heaven like the throne of God”. These seven mountains are connected more closely with God’s throne in chapters 24-25. First Enoch was probably composed variously over a considerable span of time, from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st cent. A.D.; it was popular and influential on Jewish thought (and apocalyptic/messianic thought, in particular) at the time of the New Testament. Chapters 37-71 may date from the early 1st century A.D., being contemporary with the earliest layers of Christian tradition. An important theme of the book (especially in chaps. 37-71) is how the kings of the earth will face God’s Judgment for their (arrogant) refusal to submit themselves to His authority, and for their mistreatment/persecution of God’s people.
    • In the 1st Oration, or Discourse, of Dio Chrysostom (on Kingship), we find a vision of two great mountain peaks (66-84)—one is the Royal peak, associated with Zeus, upon which is a beautiful and dignified woman, representing true and proper kingship; the second is the peak of Tyranny, upon which is seated another woman (representing Tyranny) and described in a manner reminiscent of Revelation 17-18. Dio would have been in his prime c. 90 A.D., about the time often assumed for the composition of the book of Revelation.

The prostitute is carried, born aloft, by the beast, meaning that she is supported by him. His horns and heads are a natural, if grotesque, outgrowth of the beast’s evil life and power.

For some of the references cited above (and others), cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014), pp. 674-8.
References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).