November 10: Revelation 16:12-16

Revelation 16:12-21

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

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

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

Revelation 16:12-16: Vision 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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