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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