Revelation 19:11-16, continued
In the previous note, we examined the first portion of this vision of the exalted Jesus’ end-time appearance, in the form of a conquering warrior, a ruler on horseback, corresponding to the traditional Messianic figure of the Davidic Ruler type, who will defeat and subdue the nations. Verses 14-16 bring out this military aspect more clearly, in preparation for the battle imagery in the vision of vv. 17-21.
“And the armed soldiers in the heaven(s) followed him upon white horses, having been sunk in(to) [i.e. clothed in] clean white (fine) linen (garments).”
Here both aspects of the white color-symbolism are combined: (1) victory, and (2) purity/holiness. It also draws clearly upon the first vision in vv. 1-10, of the pure and exalted believers who join the heavenly multitude to form the People of God in their fullness. The fine white linen garments, while generally representing heavenly garb, were specifically applied to believers (as the “bride” of the Lamb) in verse 8. Thus, however incongruous it may seem, here believers are part of the heavenly army (“armed soldiers in the heaven”) that the exalted Jesus leads. That they also ride white horses indicates that they are part of the same victorious power that the exalted Jesus possesses. The motif of “following” Jesus (the Lamb) may be a specific allusion to the beautiful image in 14:4.
While not emphasized in the New Testament, the idea that Angels and the Elect of Israel might join forces together in the end-time judgment (and battle) against the wicked was part of Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic tradition (e.g., Ascension of Isaiah 4:14-17, and see esp. the Qumran War Scroll [1QM, and related documents]). Military imagery is applied to believers in the New Testament, but in a different (ethical and spiritual) sense, though still not without eschatological implications (1 Thess 5:8; Eph 6:10-17, etc).
“And out of his mouth travels out a sharp sword, (so) that in [i.e. with] it he should hit the nations (hard), and he shall herd them (together) in [i.e. with] an iron staff, and (it is) he (that) treads the trough of the wine of the impulse of the anger of God the All-mighty…”
Three different strands of eschatological and Messianic tradition are combined here, drawing upon three principal Scripture passages:
- Isaiah 11:1-4 (v. 4)—As indicated in the previous note (on verse 11), this is one of the key passages viewed as a prophecy of the (Davidic) Messiah’s defeat of the nations. Naturally, such military imagery was ill-suited to Jesus’ earthly career, but it was an established part of Jewish Messianic tradition (Psalms of Solomon 17:24, 35; 4Q161 8-10 iii, 15-19ff; 1 Enoch 62:2; 2/4 Esdras 13:9-11, 37-38). The “rod” or “sword” that comes out of the Messiah’s mouth was reinterpreted as his “word” (parallel to his “breath”) that slays the wicked (on the LXX reading, cf. below); this may relate to the identification of the returning Jesus as the word of God. A similar eschatological use of Isa 11:4 can be found in 2 Thess 2:8.
- Psalm 2 (v. 9)—The “iron staff” is derived from Psalm 2:9, an even more famous Messianic passage, and one used more frequently by early Christians. This rod/staff blends together with the “rod” of Isa 11:4, creating a second motif of a tool or weapon by which the Messiah subdues the nations. Kings in the ancient Near East were often referred to with Shepherd symbolism, and no more so than a ruler from the line of David (the shepherd). The 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon is probably the best-known Jewish text that combines Psalm 2 and Isa 11:1-4 within a Messianic interpretation (cf. 17:21-35ff, note also 18:6-8). The rod or staff indicates the authority of the ruler, both in the sense of (a) guiding the herd or flock, and (b) protecting it from predators (i.e. enemies).
- Isaiah 63:1-3 (v. 3, cf. also Joel 3:13)—This is a classic description of the “day of YHWH” (the “day of vengeance” <q*n` <oy, v. 4), presented in terms similar to that in Joel 3:11-13—the judgment of the nations depicted by the imagery of the grape harvest (v. 13). Here it is God’s Anointed representative (Messiah) who comes in His place, as a Messenger of the Judgment. The enemies of God are “trampled” underfoot, just as the grapes are trodden down after the harvest to produce the wine (cf. Isa 25:10; Zech 10:5; Lam 1:15). The flowing red juice was a natural symbol for blood, as in Rev 14:17-20. It is only in Isa 63:1-3 that this imagery is tied to God (or His representative) in the figure of a conquering warrior; the description in our passage generally follows that of Isaiah—(1) his splendid apparel (v. 1), its red color, stained with blood (vv. 2-3), and (3) the act of defeating/punishing the wicked by “trampling the (grapes in the) wine-trough” (v. 3). The extended expression “the wine of the impulse [qu/mo$] of the anger of God” builds on earlier usage in chaps. 14-18.
“And he holds upon his garment and upon his thigh a name having been written: King of kings and Lord of lords.”
The final detail of the visionary description is another name—the third in the passage and the second name that is written. The significance of the thigh (mhro/$) is that is the area of the clothing where the sword would be located. However, since the conquering figure’s sword comes out of his mouth, it is not located in the normal position on the thigh; instead, a name is written in that place. It is unquestionably a divine title, since God (YHWH) was called both “King of kings” (2 Macc 13:4; 3 Macc 5:35) and “Lord of lords” (Deut 10:17; Ps 136:3), and these could also be combined (Dan 4:37 LXX; 11:36; 1 Enoch 9:4; 63:2ff). These titles were previously used of the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) in 17:14 (cf. also 1:5). Rulers in both the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world could be called “King of kings”, as the Scriptures themselves attest (Ezra 7:12; Ezek 26:7; Dan 2:37); like YHWH, Zeus also could be called by this title (Dio Chrysostom Oration 2.75). With regard to the motif of a name written on the thigh, it is worth nothing that there were statues in the Greek world that could be inscribed on the thigh with the dedication “To Zeus, king of the gods”, or something similar (Pausanias Description of Greece 5.27.12). For references, see Koester, p. 759.
The significance of these titles, as applied to the exalted Jesus, is well expressed by the notice in 1:5, which contains imagery foreshadowing that of 19:11-16:
- “the trust(worthy) witness” —in 19:11 he is also called “trust(worthy)” (pisto/$), and the designation “word/account (lo/go$) of God” very much suggests his role as God’s witness (ma/rtu$), one who speaks on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will.
- “the first-produced of the dead” —this emphasizes that Jesus’ exalted (and divine) status is understood primarily through his resurrection, by which God raised him to the exalted position at His right hand; there is likewise an allusion to harvest imagery (i.e. Jesus as the ‘first fruits’).
- “the chief (ruler) [a&rxwn] of the kings of the earth” —here the exalted Jesus is accorded a position above all earthly rulers and kings, because he is God’s Anointed, ruling in heaven at His right hand. At the end-time Judgment, this authority he possesses will be realized and demonstrated, in concrete terms, over all the kingdoms on earth.
- “the (one) washing us…in his blood” —this is one aspect of the motif in v. 13 of Jesus’ garment “dipped in blood”; similarly, believers who remain faithful are said to have washed their own garments in his blood (7:14).
Given the bloody carnage that will come upon the nations in battle (vv. 17-21, to be discussed in the next note), we might well envision a traditional military conflict, especially with the heavenly army that accompanies the exalted Jesus. However, there can be no doubt that the defeat of the nations is accomplished, not with physical force of arms, but by the sword that comes out of the Messiah’s mouth. As noted above, this image comes primarily from Isaiah 11:4:
“And he will judge the low(ly one)s with justice,
and will make (the) decision in a straight way for the oppressed of the earth;
and he will strike the earth with the staff [fb#v#] of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he will put the wicked to death.”
Here is the same combination of trustworthy judgment and punishment/defeat of the wicked. In the original Hebrew, it is a staff (fb#v#) that comes out of the ruler’s mouth; however, in the Greek version (LXX) it is a word (lo/go$): “…and he will strike the earth with the word of his mouth”. In the fragmentary Qumran commentary (pesher) on Isaiah, discussing 11:1-3, it is stated that the Messiah (“Branch of David”) would judge all the peoples with his sword (4Q161 fr. 8-10, col iii. line 22). Thus there is some precedent for interpreting the “rod” out of the Messiah’s mouth as a sword, which is the more natural weapon for slaying an enemy. For Christians, a more spiritual interpretation was readily at hand, which would depict the Word of God or the Spirit of God as a sword. Note, for example, the statement in Hebrews 4:12:
“For the Word [lo/go$] of God (is) living, and (has power) at work in (it) and (is) able to cut over [i.e. more than] every two-mouthed [i.e. two-edged] sword, reaching through even to (the) parting of soul and spirit…”
In Rev 1:16 (and 2:12, 16) it is similarly a “two-edged” sword that comes out of the exalted Jesus’ mouth, indicating that this “sword” is the Word of God. Note also the famous reference in Ephesians 6:17: “…and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”. This statement is misread and misunderstood by many Christians, reversing the word order to make the equation that the Word of God (identified as the Bible) is the sword. A careful reading of the actual Greek shows something quite different. The relative pronoun is neuter, which matches pneu=ma (“Spirit”), not ma/xaira (“sword”)—which is to say that the Spirit is identified as the Word of God. Moreover the Spirit (not Scripture) is the sword, just as salvation is the helmet, etc. In any case, all of this gives added meaning to the identification of the conquering figure in Rev 19 (the exalted Jesus) as the Word of God. He himself possesses that Word, which comes as a sword out of his own mouth, according to the imagery of Isa 11:4 LXX. Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:8, Jesus at his return will slay (lit. “take up”, “take away”) the wicked “Lawless One” with the Spirit (pneu=ma) coming out of his mouth (another allusion to Isa 11:4, “the breath of his lips”). Thus the conquering power is spiritual, and the sword that slays the wicked is the Word/Spirit of God.
In conclusion, I would suggest that the expression “Word of God” in verse 13 has three basic levels or aspects of meaning:
- The exalted Jesus functions as God’s witness, speaking on God the Father’s behalf, communicating His word and will to believers.
- The idea that believers in Christ are victorious over the forces of evil through their own witness (following that of Jesus himself). This is expressed precisely in 12:11 (“and they were victorious over him [i.e. the Dragon/Satan] through the blood of the Lamb and through the word [lo/go$] of their witness”), but is implicit throughout the entire book as well.
- It is also through the Word of God that Jesus achieves the final victory over the wicked and the forces of evil; the exalted Jesus himself functions as that Word, wielding it (as a sword) out of his own mouth.
References marked “Koester” in these notes are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).