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)”.
“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.
“…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):
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
“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
- “the (thing) holding down (power)”:
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).