Supplemental Note on Isaiah 24-27 (4): Isa 27:7-11

Isaiah 27:7-11

Isa 27:7-13 represents the final section of the “Apocalypse” of chaps. 24-27. It is to be viewed as a distinct unit, and the third of three eschatological poems which follow a common pattern: a main poem, followed by two “day of YHWH” stanzas. The only question is whether verse 6 should properly be considered the beginning of this poem or the conclusion of the one prior (26:7ff). I prefer to view it as the conclusion of the earlier poem (see the previous note), though an argument can certainly be made for its inclusion as part of vv. 7-13. The scribe of the Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) appears to have regarded verse 6 as the start of a new section, based on how he spaced the text.

Commentators have found some difficulty interpreting this poem, due to the way that it seems to shift suddenly—from a discussion of Israel (Jacob) in vv. 7-9 to that of an unidentified city in vv. 10-11. I would say that the opening couplet in verse 7 provides the key; though stated elliptically, there is a definite juxtaposition between God’s judgment on His people and that of the other nations (esp. those who oppressed/conquered Israel):

“Was (His) striking him like the striking of (the ones who) struck him?
Is he slain like (the) slaying of (the one) slaying (him)?”

God struck his people with judgment (i.e. conquest/exile), but has also struck (or will strike) those who attacked and conquered Israel (Assyria/Babylon). The Hebrew syntax is very difficult; each line has three component words, the one in the first position being a construct noun (with) preposition. The verbal forms in the second and third positions create problems with establishing the construct chain of relationship. Adding to the difficulty of translation is the fact that all three words in each line are cognate—two roots are involved:

    • Line 1—n¹kâ (hk*n`), “strike”
    • Line 2—h¹rag (gr^h*), “slay”

This duality reflect two aspects of judgment: (1) the initial blow that “strikes” the people, and (2) the result of (many of) the people being killed (“slain”, implying a military attack).

“In driving her, in sending her, He contended with her,
He removed her with His hard wind, in (the) day of q¹¼îm;
based on this, (the) crookedness of Ya’aqob will be wiped (away),
and (with) this, all (the) fruit—(the) turning (away) of his sin.” (vv. 8-9a)

The language in these lines is most difficult, and any translation must be considered tentative at best. Three different verbs are used in the first line, the first of which is quite uncertain. It may mean something like “measure”, related to the word s®°â (ha*s=); however, other commentators suggest a root meaning “drive along/away”, based on the Arabic sa°sa°. I tentatively follow this latter option, as providing a better parallel to the wind-motif in the second line. Another difficulty is the apparent 2nd person verb form t®rnâ (“you contended with her”), which is otherwise out of place in this section; most commentators opt for emending to a 3rd person form (“He [i.e. YHWH] contended with her”), even without any clear textual support for this (from the Qumran scrolls or the ancient versions). The gender shift from feminine suffixes (v. 8) to masculine (v. 9) is also confusing, though not unfrequent in ancient Hebrew poetry (for a similar use of the feminine, see the previous note on verse 6).

The first couplet in v. 8 refers to the Exile, especially vivid with the imagery of harsh east wind blowing, driving the people away (into exile). I left the noun q¹dîm (<yd!q*) untranslated above; technically, it refers to the east-wind (i.e. qdm as alluding to the eastern direction). The root properly refers to something in front, that meets (or strikes) a person; in English idiom, we might speak of something “hitting you in the face”, which would be appropriate here, since the primary image is that of people receiving a blast from the powerful (and hot) eastern wind. This “wind” (rûaµ j^Wr, also meaning “breath” and “spirit”) symbolizes God’s action—the divine judgment that comes upon Israel (and Judah) in the form of a devastating military invasion. By this, YHWH “contends” (vb rî» byr!) with Israel on account of her sins.

Yet, in the case of His people, this divine judgment has a redemptive purpose—it serves to “wipe off/out” (vb k¹¸ar rp^K*) their crookedness (twistedness/perversion) and to “turn away” (vb sûr rWs) their sin. This idea reflects a common theme in the 7th-6th century Prophets: that there will be a faithful “remnant” left following the judgment. However, depending on the precise dating of this poem (see below), it is possible that the message here is meant as a warning to Judah, so that it might yet avert the same kind of punishment experienced by the northern kingdom. More likely, the reference is more general, referring to the return of the people (Israel and Judah) from exile; the removal of all idolatry and wickedness represents part of Israel’s restoration.

Imagery associated with Canaanite religion syncretism—i.e., worship of Canaanite deities along with YHWH—is used to depict wickedness and false religion in traditional terms that would certainly have been familiar to readers/hearers in the 7th-6th centuries. The destruction of pagan altars and the removal of Asherah-images (v. 9b) follows the Deuteronomic prescription—Deut 7:5; 12:13 (see also Exod 32:20; 34:13), etc—and the corresponding reform under Josiah (2 Kings 23:15 par). Thus the land of Israel in the period of restoration will be purged and free from idolatry.

The scene in verse 10-11 suddenly shifts from Israel to an otherwise unnamed “city”. This is best understood in light of the contrast between the judgment on God’s own people (which is redemptive) and the judgment on the other wicked nations (which results in total destruction). Thus the city in vv. 10-11 is similar to the devastated “city of confusion” in 24:10ff; note also the contrast with the secure, fortified city (of the righteous) in 26:1-6. Probably Babylon is most directly in view here, but functioning also as a representative figure-type for the cities of all the nations. The fall of Babylon, with its great city left desolate and in ruin, served as a powerful symbol in the exilic period—one which would last for many centuries (see esp. the use of the imagery in the book of Revelation).

The description in verse 10 begins:

“For the fenced [i.e. fortified] city (is left) alone,
a habitation (with people) sent away, and left (empty)”

The city is desolate and empty, the use of passive forms of the verbs š¹laµ (“send”) and ±¹za» (“leave”) specifically connoting the deprivation of any people—i.e., no one is left living in it. It becomes a pasture (play on the word n¹weh, translated “habitation” above) where animals graze and feed. The branches of once fertile trees and plants have become dry/withered and fallen off; they serve as kindling for the fire of the great Judgment (vv. 10b-11a).

“It [i.e. the city] has no discernment,
(and) for this (reason) the (One) making it has no care for it,
(and) the (One) forming it will show it no favor.” (v. 11b)

This lack of discernment/understanding (bînâ) is frequently brought as a charge against God’s own people Israel in the prophetic oracles of judgment. Here, however, the context suggests that we are dealing with the other nations, viewed collectively as a single “city”. Given the specific juxtaposition in verse 7 (see above), this should be understood primarily as a reference to the conquering empire-states of Assyria and Babylon (the latter being the more direct point of reference). God shows mercy to His people, even in the time of judgment, since the conquest/exile has a redemptive purpose (see above), with a restored people returning from exile into a New Age. By contrast, in the great Judgment against the nations, YHWH will show no mercy—the great City (of the nations) will be utterly ruined and destroyed, ultimately being consumed by fire.

Certain details and points of emphasis in the poem raise the possibility that it stems from a setting in which the Babylonian conquest of Judah (the southern kingdom) has not yet taken place. This could mean a date anywhere from the late 8th to the early 6th century. Some commentators (such as J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia [Fortress Press: 2015]) would date the entirety of chapters 24-27 to the late 7th or early 6th century, prior to the fall of Jerusalem (587). While this is possible, a time-frame more firmly in the mid-6th century seems to me more likely. Indeed, I would say that the final shaping of chaps. 13-27, as a whole, is best located in the mid-6th century, sometime prior to the fall of Babylon (539).

This will be discussed further in the next (and final note) of this set, as we consider the two “Day of YHWH” stanzas in verses 12-13.

Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27 (continued)

Isaiah 13:1-14:27, continued

In the previous study, we looked at Isaiah 13-14 from a historical-critical and composition-critical standpoint, within the overall context of chapters 13-27. Of particular interest are the opening chapters 13-14, since they establish the thematic setting for the collection of nation-oracles, focusing on the fall of Babylon (and the Babylonian Empire) in the 6th century B.C. By contrast, the Isaian material—that is, the oracles and traditions stemming from the time of the prophet himself (mid-late 8th century), are from the Assyrian period. I discussed the historical-critical question, regarding the relationship of chaps. 13-27 to these two different time-frames, in the previous study. In particular, I mentioned the critical theory whereby the older Isaian (nation-oracle) material, focused on the Assyrian empire, was applied to the later context of the Babylonian empire. According to this theory, the linchpin is the poem in 14:3-21, which may have referred to king Sargon II of Assyria, who also held the title “king of Babylon”. Thus, an oracle against Assyria (14:4b-21, 24-27) may have come to be reinterpreted, being applied to Babylon (chap. 13; 14:4a, 22-23), with a new message for Israelites and Judeans in the 6th century: just as God brought judgment on the Assyrians, so he will do the same to the Babylonians.

Today, I wish to focus specifically on the poem in 14:3-21, approaching it from an exegetical-critical standpoint, much in the manner that I do in the (Sunday) Studies on the Psalms, looking at each individual couplet and strophe.

Isaiah 14:3-21

The introduction in verse 3-4a identifies this as a poem against the king of Babylon. While this may be part of the editorial layer that sets the Isaian material in a 6th century Babylonian context (see above), it could also reflect a genuine historical tradition regarding the identity of the king referenced in the poem. In the previous study, I discussed the possibility that Sargon II may have been the (Assyrian) king in view. Within the poem itself there is no reference to a specific ruler or nation, and certainly no indication that it is meant to refer to a king of the Babylonian empire (in spite of the notice in v. 4a).

The poem is part of the ancient nation-oracle tradition in the Prophets, and involves a very specific sub-genre, in which the nation is represented by its king. The ruler embodies the ambition, violence, and wickedness of the nation as a whole—especially for a nation that acts as an aggressive, conquering regional empire, such as is the case of Assyria in the 8th/7th century. A comparable poem, probably similar in date, is directed against the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704-681 B.C.) in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). This prophetic denunciation (and taunt) is an the early instance of the “wicked tyrant” motif, emphasizing the arrogance and ambition of the ruler, who, by his actions and attitude, foolishly sought to challenge YHWH Himself:

“Whom have you treated with scorn and attacked (with words)?
And against whom did you raise (your) voice high
and lift up your eyes (to the) high place?
(Was it not) against the Holy (One) of Yisrael?
By the hand of your messengers you treated the Lord with scorn,
and said: ‘With the great number of my riders [i.e. chariots]
I have gone up (to the) high place of the mountains,
(to the) sides of the (snow)-white peaks (of Lebanon),
and I cut (down) the standing cedars (and) chosen fir-trees!
I came to the lodging-place (at) his (farthest) borders,
(to) the thick (forest) of his planted garden!'” (vv. 22-23)

The wording at the close of v. 23 suggests that Sennacherib essentially boasts that he has ascended (and/or is able to ascend) all the way to the Garden of God, according to its traditional/mythic location at the top of the great Mountain. Through his earthly power—by brute strength (i.e. military might) and force of will—he cut his way (using the motif of felling trees) to this highest point. In spite of the ruler’s great boast, his ambitions have been curbed by God (i.e. he has been turned back militarily), leading to his abject humiliation (vv. 21, 27-28). Sargon II was the father and predecessor of Sennacherib, and, if he is indeed the king being referenced in Isa 14:3-21, then it means that this poem is an even earlier example of the “wicked tyrant” motif; indeed, there are a number of thematic similarities with the poem of 2 Kings 19:22ff par. For more on the subsequent development of the “wicked tyrant” motif, see my article on the “Antichrist Tradition”.

In verse 4a, the poem is specifically called a m¹š¹l—that is, a figurative discourse, where certain characters and situations are used in a representative, illustrative manner.

Isa 14:4b-11

The poem may be divided into two main sections, or stanzas. The first, in vv. 4b-11, addresses the tyrant in the 3rd person, before shifting to direct (2nd person) address in verse 8. The mechanism for this is a dramatic scenario, in which the trees of Lebanon speak collectively to the king. This is followed by a scene in which the shades of the dead speak similarly to him, as he arrives in the realm of the dead (Sheol). The section may thus be further divided, according to the structure of the mini-drama:

    • Opening taunt (vv. 4b-6)
    • The Trees of Lebanon (vv. 7-8)
    • The Shades of Sheol (vv. 9-11)
Verses 4b-6

“How (the one) pressing has ceased—
how (his) defiance has ceased!
YHWH has broken (the) stick of (the) wicked,
the staff of (the) rulers—
(the one) having struck (the) peoples,
striking without turning away,
having trampled (the) nations in anger,
pursuing without any (to) restrain (him).”

The taunt is directed at an especially notable “wicked tyrant” (cf. above), marked as one who oppresses other nations–i.e., pressing or exerting pressure (vb. n¹ga´) against them. He is also characterized by arrogance and defiance in his willingness to attack and conquer others. The noun in the second line of v. 4b is ma¼®h¢»â  in the Masoretic text, but the reading of the Qumran scroll 1QIsaa mar®h¢»â is likely correct, derived from the root r¹ha», with the basic meaning of “pride, arrogance, defiance”, and connoting a tendency to cause disturbance and alarm among people. With the stick/staff of his wicked rule (note the parallelism in the verse 5 couplet), he strikes others, but now has been struck (by God) in turn. Indeed, YHWH has broken the staff that symbolized the tyrant’s rule. The apparent invincibility of the tyrant, with his widespread conquests, is certainly appropriate to the Assyrian empire at its height, as well as being applicable to the later Babylonian empire (see above).

Verses 7-8

“(Now) all the earth rests and relaxes,
they break out (in) a cry (of joy);
even (the) cypress trees are joyful toward you,
(and the) cedar trees of (the) white (peaks),
(saying) ‘Since you were laid down (low),
the (one) cutting no (longer) comes up against us!'”

As in the taunt against Sennacherib in 2 Kings 19:22ff par (see above), the conquest of peoples is compared to the cutting down of trees. Indeed, both are characteristic of great nations and empires, and important to a king’s reputation and legacy. His building projects, requiring the cutting down of trees (i.e. acquisition of timber from the “snow-white peaks” [Lebanon]), and military conquests go hand in hand. The tradition of the king mounting an expedition to the Lebanon goes back to at least the ancient Gilgamesh tales of Sumer in the late-3rd millennium B.C. (see above). Now, however, with the death/defeat of the tyrant, the trees can rejoice in safety, without any worry of men coming to cut them down (at least for the time being).

Verses 9-11

Š§°ôl from below (also) stirs toward you,
to meet (you) in your coming,
rousing (the) shades (of the dead) for you;
it makes the (wild) goats of (the) earth stand from their seats,
all (the) kings of (the) nations—
all of them will answer and will say to you:
‘Even you are (as) worn (out) as we,
you have become like unto us!
Your exaltedness has been brought down to Š§°ôl,
your skin (to the) throng (of the dead);
beneath you (the) multiplying (worm) spreads out,
and (the) crimson-worm (is) your covering!'”

From the trees at the high peaks of Lebanon, representing the summit of human ambition and accomplishment, the scene shifts to the lowest point–the realm of the dead (Sheol) located far below the surface of the earth. As the trees speak (joyfully) to the fallen tyrant, so also do the shades (r®¸¹°îm) of the dead. These are specifically identified as the mighty “he-goats” (i.e. the chiefs/rulers) of the earth, who have their own kinds of ‘thrones’ in the underworld. No longer grand and exalted, in the realm of the dead it is a seat made of maggots and worms. The (Assyrian) tyrant thus joins all others like him—all other once-mighty kings who now have their seat among the throngs of the dead. Portions of this section are difficult to translate and interpret with precision; in particular, the second line of verse 11 is problematic.

Isa 14:12-21

A second taunt begins at verse 12, aimed more directly at the king. The tone follows that of the Sennacherib-taunt in 2 Kings 19:22ff, as also other examples of the genre, such as Ezekiel’s oracle against the king of Tyre (28:11-19). It emphasizes even more dramatically the contrast between the king’s grandiose ambitions and his undignified fate.

Verses 12-15

“How you have fallen from the heavens,
(you) shining (one), son of the Dawn!
You have been hacked (down) to the earth,
(the one) bringing (the same) lowness upon the nations!
Indeed, you said in your heart:
‘I will go up to the heavens!
From the place above the stars of the Mighty (One)
I will raise high my ruling-seat [i.e. throne];
and I will sit (myself) on the Mountain appointed (for the Mighty)
(there) on the sides of (its) secluded (peak) [‚¹¸ôn]!
I will go up upon the heights of (the) dark cloud(s),
(and so) will I be likened to (the) Highest (myself)!’
(But) how you were brought down to Š§°ôl (instead),
to the side [i.e. bottom] of (the deepest) pit!”

As in the Sennacherib-oracle, there is the idea of the king thinking he could ascend all the way to the Mountain where God dwells. This is associated with snow-capped peaks of the Lebanon range (verse 8; compare 37:24), drawing upon ancient Syrian (i.e. northern Canaanite / Ugaritic) tradition. One such designated mountain was Mt. Casius (Jebel el-Aqra±), but different local sites could serve as a representation of the Mountain of God in religious traditions. Indeed, it is the place “appointed” (mô±¢¼) for the divine/heavenly beings to gather, but only those related to the Mighty One (°E~l)—otherwise, it was entirely inaccessible to human beings. This helps to explain the significance of the name ‚¹¸ôn, essentially referring to a distant and secluded (i.e. inaccessible and fortified) location; directionally, it came to indicate the distant north.

While ascending to the Mountain peak, or so he imagines, the king cuts his way there, felling the tall trees (v. 8; 37:24 par). On the cutting down of trees as a suitable representation for the worldly ambitions and grandiose exploits of a king, see the discussion above. It is depicted in ancient Near Eastern tradition at least as early as the Sumerian Gilgamesh legends of the late-3rd millennium B.C. (preserved subsequently in the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablets 3-5); and, the “cedars of Lebanon” were among the most valuable and choicest trees a king could acquire. The motif also serves as a figure for military conquest—the ‘cutting down’ of people and cities (vv. 6ff). Ultimately, however, it is the king himself who is “hacked” (vb g¹¼a±) down to the ground (v. 12). Indeed, instead of ascending all the way to Heaven, he is brought down to the deep pit of Sheol (loav=)—that is, to the underworld, the realm of Death and the grave. In all likelihood this is meant to signify the actual death of the king.

Clearly, the oracle is satirical—the claims, etc, of the king are ultimately doomed to failure, and, in the end, his ambitions are foolish, and his fate is appropriately the opposite of what he imagined for himself. To some extent, these divine pretensions merely reflect the ancient beliefs and traditions surrounding kingship. Frequently, in the ancient Near East, divine titles and attributes are applied to the ruler; this was true even in Israel (especially in the Judean royal theology associated with David and his descendants), but never to the extent that we see in the surrounding nations. The symbolism and iconography was, of course, strongest where nations and city-states expanded to the level of a regional empire; the king could virtually be considered a deity himself (cf. especially the Egyptian Pharaonic theology at its peak).

Thus, the declaration in verse 12, calling the king of Babylon “(the) shining (one), son of the Dawn”, plays on this tendency of identifying kings with deity—especially the celestial/heavenly manifestation of deity. The terms hêl¢l (“shining [one]”) and š¹µar (“dawn”, i.e. the rising of the sun/light) are, in essence, both attested as divine titles (or names) in Semitic/Canaanite tradition. It is also possible that there is here an allusion to a mythological religious (and/or cosmological) tradition involving the disobedience (and fall) of a heavenly being, which has been applied to an earthly ruler.

Verses 16-17

“(The one)s seeing you will stare at you,
and will give consideration to you, saying:
‘Is this the man making (the) earth quiver,
(and) making kingdoms shake (with fear)?
(who) set (the) habitable (world) as a desert,
and destroyed its cities?
(who) would not open [i.e. allow] its bound (captive)s (to go) home?'”

As in the first part of the poem, a group of people speak in response to the king’s fate. Here, the focus would seem to be on the population generally, commenting on the ultimate legacy of this tyrant. It is parallel to the declaration by the shades of the dead, emphasizing that the king’s fate is simply to join with all the (wicked) dead in the depths of Sheol. Most likely the exile of the northern territories (of Israel) is alluded to in the final line; it certainly would have had resonance for the Judeans exiled by the Babylonians as well.

Verses 18-21

“All (the) kings of (the) nations, all of them,
lie down in (great) worth, a man with his house;
but you, you are thrown out from your burial (place),
as a <stripped> (corpse), detestable,
(with) slain (bodie)s (as) a garment,
having been stabbed (with) a sword,
going down to (the) stones of (the) Pit,
as a carcass trampled under.
You will not be united with them in burial,
for you brought ruin (to) your land,
(and) slew your (own) people.
(Its name) will not be (re)called into (the) distant (future),
(it is the) seed of (one)s bringing evil.
(So then) establish slaughtering (for) his sons,
with the crookedness of their father;
they do not stand up any (more),
and will (not any longer) possess (the earth),
and (no more) fill (the) face of (the) habitable (world with) cities!”

Because of the king’s ignoble fate, involving death and defeat (in battle?), he will not receive an honorable burial with the rest of his “house” (i.e. ancestors). The claim that he “brought ruin” to his land and “slew” his (own) people, probably alludes to a military defeat. Attempts have been been made to identify this with events in the life of the Assyrian rulers Sargon II (see above) or Sennacherib, but a connection cannot be established with precision. What is clear, however, is that this king’s demise and disgrace will extend to his “sons” (i.e. descendants). This presumably refers to the eventual defeat and collapse of the Assyrian empire in the late 7th century (see below). Certainly, the wording of the last two lines suggests a nation that no longer has any empire-building power.

Isaiah 14:22-27

Most critical commentators agree that verses 22-23, with its specific reference to the fall of the Babylonian empire, are intrusive, belonging to the layer of editing that has interpreted and applied the Isaian nation-oracles to the later context of the fall of Babylon (see above, and in the previous study). This would seem to be confirmed by what follows in verses 24-27, prophesying the defeat of the Assyrians. If all of 13:1-14:23 originally dealt with the fall of the Babylonian empire, then the sudden shift to Assyria would seem most out of place. However, there is strong reason to think that 14:4b-21 + 24-27 (and possibly also the opening vv. 1-2) together represent, in their original context, an oracle against Assyria. Only at a later point was the tradition regarding the Assyrian tyrant as the “king of Babylon” developed so that chapters 13-21ff applied to the message of judgment against the 6th century empire of Babylon. This composition-critical view, if correct, demonstrates the longstanding power of the Prophetic message, the inspired character of which cannot be limited to a single time or place. Certainly, Christians who accept many Isaian passages as inspired prophecies of Jesus’ Christ’s life and work—centuries later and far removed from the original context—should not be surprised if the same sort of thing were done by Israelites and Jews in earlier generations. Applying the Isaian prophecies of the Assyrian period to the time of the Babylonian empire may be considered just such an example of “inspired application”.

In next week’s study we will turn to chapters 24-27 which close this (nation-oracle) division of the book. It is a most intriguing section, sometimes referred to as the Isaian “Apocalypse”. Suddenly, the nation-oracle form is expanded to include a range of eschatological and quasi-apocalyptic elements. We will not be able to examine these chapters in detail; however, certain key representative passages will be singled out, along with an introductory survey.


Saturday Series: Isaiah 13:1-14:27

Isaiah 13:1-14:27

In this current series of studies on the Book of Isaiah, we turn now to the next major division of the book—chapters 13-27. That 13:1 marks the beginning of a new division is clear from the parallels with the superscription in 2:1, and is confirmed by the formatting at this point in the Qumran manuscripts 1QIsaa and 4QIsaa. Moreover, these chapters are characterized throughout as nation-oracles, with the overall theme of God’s judgment against the nations.

Indeed, the nation-oracle is a distinct genre with a long history in the Old Testament (and elsewhere in the ancient Near East), overlapping with that of the judgment-oracle. Examples can be found in most of the Prophetic writings, spanning a period of centuries, with noteworthy sets or collections in the books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It tends to be tied to the “day of YHWH” motif—the “day” being the moment or time when YHWH acts to bring judgment against a particular nation or people (including His own people, the kingdoms of Israel/Judah). The nation-oracles typically announce or foretell the coming judgment, often in graphic (and exaggerated) visual terms, using a range of striking imagery and symbolism. Such details are not necessarily meant to be taken in a concrete, literalistic sense. The point is the judgment itself—and its certainty, as a direct response of the sovereign God (El-Yahweh) to the wickedness and violence of a nation. Sometimes the possibility of repentance is part of the oracle, though typically this is not the case—the judgment is determined, and cannot be avoided.

IsaIAH 13:1—the Historical & Literary Setting

Isaiah 13:1 reads: “(The) lifting up [ma´´¹°] (of the voice regarding) Babel [i.e. Babylon], which Yesha‘yahu {Yah-will-save} son of ’Amos beheld in a vision [µ¹zâ]”. As noted above, this is similar to the superscription at the beginning of chaps. 2-12, as well to that of the book as a whole (1:1). The idiom of seeing/vision (using the root µ¹zâ), can refer simply to the prophetic message, and need not entail an actual vision (of which there are very few in the book of Isaiah). There may be a tendency to associate these words specifically with chapter 13; however, their real significance relates to the wider context of chapters 13-27, and is two-fold:

    • It marks chs. 13-27 essentially as a collection of ma´´¹°o¾, and
    • It marks the literary setting of the Isaian material (oracles) as that of the Babylonian Empire (Babylon) in the 6th century B.C.

The noun ma´´¹° literally means a “lifting up” (that is, of the voice), used in the technical prophetic sense of an oracle uttered by the inspired spokesperson (n¹»î°, i.e. prophet) of YHWH. It occurs frequently in the Prophets, including at the beginning of the shorter books (Nah 1:1; Hab 1:1; Mal 1:1; cf. also Zech 9:1), but most often appears in the book of Isaiah—14 times, and 11 of these are found in the nation-oracle material of chapters 13-23.

The focus on the judgment against Babylon—its fall—in chapters 13-14 (and also chap. 21) needs to be discussed, both from an historical and literary standpoint. It is hard to explain these prophecies as the work of the 8th century prophet Isaiah, something that critical commentators, especially, have long noted. What meaning would the fall of Babylon (presumably that of the Babylonian Empire) have held for people of that time, when the dominating power was Assyria? By contrast, such a message would have been most important (and welcome) to Israelites and Judeans of the 6th century, especially as an announcement of Babylon’s fall would have been tied to the idea of the possible restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to their land. Prior to the Babylonian conquest and exile, would the message of chap. 13 (and 21) have made any real sense to the people? Thus, most critical commentators would hold that the prophecies on Babylon’s fall were composed at a later time, in the 6th century (prior to 539, when Babylon fell to the Persians). The similarities of wording, theme, and detail between Isa 13 and Jer 50-51 would tend to confirm this (see Blenkinsopp, p. 278).

At the same time, there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of most of the material in chapters 15-20, as representing Isaian oracles from the (late) 8th century B.C. Even the poem of 14:4b-21 itself, despite its connection to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, could easily date from this period (for more on this, see below). This suggests the following (possible) literary and historical explanation regarding the structure of chapters 13-21ff:

At some point in the 6th century (prior to 539), a collection of (earlier) Isaian nation-oracles was set within the context of the Babylonian conquest and exile. The theme of judgment in the nation-oracles was applied to Babylon (the Babylonian empire) in this transferred setting—announcing the coming judgment by God against the empire, including the fall of Babylon itself (similar to the oracle in Jeremiah 50-51). The twin oracles in chapters 13 and 21 on this theme suggest that chapters 13-21 may have formed the primary division, to which additional Isaian material (in chaps. 22-23) was added, being capped by the ‘Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27. It has been suggested that the ‘Apocalypse’ was composed at the same time as chapter 13 (and perhaps by the same person), drawing upon authentic Isaian material and themes (see Roberts, p. 194).

A strict traditional-conservative view of the matter would tend to maintain the Isaian authorship of chapters 13, 21, etc—or, at least that they stem from authentic oracles by the prophet. My own opinion is that some measure of later (6th century) handling and editing has taken place, best explained as either: (a) adaptation of an authentic Isaian oracle, or (b) an intentional interpretation of Isaiah’s oracle(s) as applying to (and foretelling) the fall of Babylon. This will be discussed further below on chapters 13-14.

The Structure of Isaiah 13-14

Given the historical and literary questions addressed above, a proper understanding of this material must begin with a careful analysis of its form and structure. Within the overall context of chapters 13-27, it is right to consider chaps. 13-14 as a distinct unit, with the following literary outline:

    • 13:1—superscription establishing the Babylonian context of the nation-oracle(s)
    • 13:2-22—An oracle (ma´´¹°) on the Fall of Babylon
    • 14:1-2—Promise of Israel’s restoration/return (following Babylon’s fall)
    • [14:3-4a—transition to the poem in verses 4bff]
    • 14:4b-21—A dramatic representation (m¹š¹l) of the Fall of Babylon (the wicked tyrant, “king of Babylon”)
      [with an editorial comment, vv. 22-23]
    • 14:24-27—An oracular announcement of the Fall of Assyria

Each oracle-poem (13:2-22, 14:4b-21) is essentially followed by an announcement of salvation for God’s people. The sudden shift from Babylon to Assyria seems strange at first glance, but it makes good sense in light of the literary and historical explanation of this material offered above. Note the following parallelism, which strongly indicates an intentional adaptation (and interpretation) of the Isaian material:

    • Poem on the Fall of Babylon (13:2-22)
      • Babylon’s Fall = Salvation for the conquered/exiled people (14:1-2f)
    • Poem on the Fall of Assyria, whose king is the “king of Babylon” (14:4b-21)
      • Assyria’s Fall, which, by implication, means salvation for Judah and the conquered parts of Israel (14:24-27)

In other words, the overriding message is: just as God brought judgment on Assyria, with the possibility of salvation/deliverance for His people, so also He will bring judgment on Babylon, which will allow for the restoration/return of His people from exile.

The Oracle-Poem in Isaiah 14

In light of the above analysis, in the remainder of this study I wish to focus specifically on the oracle-poem in chapter 14. In the introduction (v. 4a), it is called a m¹š¹l, which is best translated as “representation”; that is to say, it is a poetic (and dramatic) representation of the nation’s fall, in the person of its king. But which nation? In spite of the references to Babylon in vv. 4a, 22-23, there are no such indicators in the poem itself, which could apply to almost any nation and/or wicked ruler of the time. For this reason, many commentators would hold that the original (Isaian) oracle actually referred to the king of Assyria.

A strong argument can be made that the king in question is Sargon II of Assyria (r. 721-705), who did, in fact, take on the title “king of Babylon” a few years before his death (709), something that, apparently, cannot be said of other Assyrian rulers of the period (Roberts, p. 207). On Sargon’s ascending the throne of Babylon, cf. A. Kirk Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, Texts from Cuneiform Sources 5 (J. J. Augustin: 1975) 75 ii. 5-1´ (cited by Roberts, l.c.). Sargon died ignominiously, killed in battle while on military campaign. A later Assyrian text from the time of Esarhaddon makes clear that Sargon’s demise was such that his son and successor (Sennacherib) had to inquire of the gods what his father’s great sin was that led to such a fate. The comment that Sargon “was not buried in his house” could indicate that, having died on the battlefield, his body could not be recovered for a proper burial. If the oracle in chapter 14 referred to Sargon II, and was uttered during the years 709-705, then the title “king of Babylon” would have been entirely fitting, his death serving as a general fulfillment of the prophecy. At a later point, this circumstance would have allowed for the natural association between this Assyrian “king of Babylon”, and the Babylonian Empire itself (see above).

In considering the structure of the poem, it may be divided into two main parts:

    • An announcement of the tyrant’s death, which is declared by all the earth (and the underworld), verses 4b-11
    • A juxtaposition of the king’s lofty ambitions with his actual fate (vv. 12-21), presented in a dramatic dialogue-format that may be further subdivided:
      • Initial announcement of his fall (v. 12)
      • Dialogue (vv. 13-17):
        • The words ‘spoken’ by the tyrant’s heart (vv. 13-14)
        • His fate is the opposite (v. 15)
        • The words spoken by those oppressed by the tyrant (vv. 16-17)
      • The end and legacy of the tyrant (vv. 18-21)

If this is indeed a genuine Isaian oracle (from the end of the 8th century), then it represents perhaps the earliest example of the “wicked tyrant” motif in the nation-oracles of the Prophets. There is a comparable instance, applied to Sennacherib (son and successor of Sargon), in 2 Kings 19:22ff (= Isa 37:23ff). These occurrences in the nation-oracles, as they developed over a number of centuries, provide much of the Old Testament background for the “Antichrist” tradition in early Christianity. I discuss that subject at length in a three-part article as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

Having surveyed the critical aspects of chapter 14, in next week’s study, I wish to examine the oracle-poem of vv. 4b-21 in detail, looking closely at each verse and poetic line. Such exegetical analysis, in addition to a critical analysis, will allow us to see more clearly how the ancient prophetic oracle form functioned in its original setting, and how it may have served as a source of inspiration for subsequent messages of judgment against the nations, as well as hope and deliverance for God’s people.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale: 2000).


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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December 2: Revelation 18:4-8

Revelation 18:1-8, continued

Revelation 18:4-5

“And I heard another voice out of heaven saying: ‘Come out, my people, (come) out of her, (so) that you should not have (anything) in common with her sins, and (so) that you should not (also) receive (any) out of the (thing)s striking her; (for it is) that her sins (have) stuck (one on top of the other), (reaching) as far as heaven, and God (has) remembered her injustices!'”

The voice coming from heaven indicates that the announcement is not so much coming through the intermediary of a specific Messenger (Angel), as it is a message coming from God Himself. This adds to the drama and climactic nature of the scene. In 10:4 the heavenly voice is associated with the sound of thunder, a traditional idiom for the voice of God (loq in Hebrew meaning both “voice” and “thunder”). A similar voice sounding in 16:1 directs the start of the great Judgment in the bowl-vision cycle.

The first part of the message in vv. 4-5 is directed at the people of God, which may seem strange since, within the visionary narrative, this moment occurs at the end (or climax) of the great Judgment, presumably after the faithful ones (believers) have already been rescued. This is to miss the main point of the visions, which are aimed at the people living in the Roman Empire (Asia Minor) at the time of the writing, before the great Judgment strikes. This part of the message is aimed at those believers—and, we may say, all believers—as a warning not to become enmeshed in the wicked worldly power of the “great city”. Those who leave “Babylon” are the faithful ones who will escape the coming Judgment.

The actual wording in vv. 4-5 echoes that of the oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51, specifically 51:45 (also 50:8; 51:6, 9); a similar message occurs in Isa 52:11, which is taken and applied (in a more general sense) for believers as part of the catena (Scripture chain) in 2 Cor 6:16-18. To “leave” Babylon (or the Roman Empire and its imperial government) is not meant in the literal sense of changing geographic location; rather, it means not participating in the sinfulness of its worldly power and wickedness—including, but not limited to, its pagan ‘idolatry’.

The motif of Babylon’s sins being “stuck together” (vb kolla/w), i.e. so that they are stacked one on top of the other, likely is an allusion to the ancient Babel narrative in Genesis, with its image of a ziggurat-tower that reaches high up into the sky, practically up to heaven (Gen 11:4). Here it is the city’s sins that pile up, figuratively, like a great tower. The imagery also reflects the idea of the pride and arrogance of the nations (and their rulers), with their worldly ambition to ‘reach up to heaven’ and rule like God on earth (Isa 14:13-14; Ezek 28:2; 31:3, 10, etc). This is central to the judgment against the nations in the Prophetic nation-oracles, and plays a key role in traditional Jewish eschatology and Messianism, and throughout the apocalyptic literature.

To say that God “remembers” injustice means specifically that he acts in judgment to punish it—Psalm 109:14; Jer 14:10; cf. Koester, pp. 699-700.

Revelation 18:6-7a

“You must give away to her even as she gave away, and make (it) two-fold for her—the two-fold (punishment)s according to her works!—(and) in the drinking-cup in which she mixed (the wine) you shall mix (it) for her two-fold; as much as she esteemed her(self) and (liv)ed roughly (for pleasure), give this much to her (in the pain of) testing and (its) sorrow!”

Justice requires that the punishment fit the crime and be proportionate to it. This is the ancient principle of lex talionis, and the irony for the wicked is that they will end up experiencing the same sorts of things that they did to others. However, the crimes of the “great city” are such that in the Judgment they will receive double the measure back in the form of punishment. Having done violence to others (esp. believers), “Babylon” will suffer the same kind of violence herself (Jer 50:15, 29; Psalm 137:8); on the motif of double-payment, cf. Isa 40:2; Jer 16:18 (Koester, p. 700).

It is not immediately clear just who the heavenly voice is addressing with the imperatives in verses 6-7. The address in vv. 4-5 was aimed at believers, but it is unlikely that this is the sense here. Heavenly Messengers (Angels) are usually depicted as delivering the Judgment, especially when it involved natural disaster or death. However, according to 17:16, it is clear that the “horns” of the Sea-creature—best understood as vassal kings of the Empire—are the ones who will bring destruction and desolation on the “great city”. While prompted by their own wicked impulses, they act according to the will of God, who ultimately controls the events, using the kings as a means to bring about judgment (v. 17). Frequently in the Prophetic nation-oracles, judgment comes by way of invasion and military attack (by human armies), and so it is here as well.

The measure of “Babylon’s” judgment is also based upon the extent to which this “woman” (prostitute) honored herself. Here I have rendered the verb doca/zw in the more literal sense of “esteem” (i.e., treat or regard with esteem), since it has to do with how the prostitute thinks of herself (cf. below). This self-pride leads to wanton and reckless behavior, as indicated by the verb strhnia/w (related to the noun strh=no$ in v. 3), which basically means “acting rough”, perhaps an allusion to the violence that accompanies her lavishly wicked lifestyle. While the Woman/Babylon may imagine that she is great and esteemed by all the world, the Judgment will result in a harsh and painful testing (basanismo/$) that will reveal her wicked and wretched true nature, and lead to great sorrow (pe/nqo$). This echoes the earlier idea that she will be left desolate and naked (17:16), stripped of all her fine clothing and jewels.

Revelation 18:7b-8

“(For it is) that in her heart she reckons that ‘I sit as a queen! I am not (one) lacking (a husband), and I shall (certainly) not see sorrow!’ Through this (then), in a single day the (thing)s striking her will come—death and sorrow and hunger, and in fire she will be burned down—(for it is) that strong (is) the Lord God, the (One hav)ing judged her!”

Here we see vividly what the woman thinks of herself, how she esteems herself—as a great ruler (queen, basi/lissa). Moreover, as one who has sexual intercourse (figuratively speaking) with many mates—all the “kings of the earth” —she certainly will never be “lacking” a husband. The noun xh/ra properly refers to someone lacking (that is, lacking a husband), often in the specific sense of a widow. The language here echoes that in Isa 47:8-9, a variation on the boast of kings and cities in the nation-oracles (cf. above). Rome was occasionally depicted as a queen or mistress of the world; for the personification of Rome as a woman seated (ruling) on seven hills, as in the chap. 17 vision, cf. the earlier note on 17:9. For similar wording (as in v. 7) applied to Rome as a woman, cf. Sibylline Oracles 5.173 (Koester, p. 701).

Verse 8 is parallel to verse 6, announcing that the punishment meted out to “Babylon” will be even greater and more intense than one might otherwise expect. In verse 6, this was expressed as a two-fold (i.e. double) punishment; here, the idea is that the judgment will come all at once, in a single (mi/a) moment. The use of the adjective mi/a (“one, single”) creates a wordplay allusion to the references in 17:12-13, 17, which also deal with the coming judgment on the city. The things that are to strike (plhgai/, ‘plagues’) are those very things associated with the siege and destruction of a city (cf. the previous note on 17:15-18). The “testing” (basanismo/$) mentioned in verse 7, generally refers to the testing of metal, etc, by fire; here, the woman/city is proven false and wicked in the judgment, and, as a result, is destroyed (burned to the ground) in fire.

The final phrase, declaring the strength of of God and His judgment, may be inspired by Jer 50:34, part of that earlier oracle on the fall of Babylon (the actual city). Here the emphasis is again on the fact that, even if the destruction of the “great city” will come through military attack (by the “horn”-kings), it is God Himself who brings this about—the kings and the armies act through His strength, not their own.

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December 1: Revelation 18:1-3

Revelation 18:1-8

After the vision and interpretation of the Woman (Prostitute) on the Sea-Creature (chap. 17), a second and related visionary scene occurs in chapter 18. It is not an extended vision, but a manifestation of heavenly Messengers to the seer (John). In the first announcement (vv. 1-3), a Messenger is seen descending from heaven; in the second (vv. 4ff) a great voice makes the announcement from out of heaven.

Revelation 18:1-3

“With [i.e. after] these (thing)s I saw another Messenger stepping [i.e. coming] down out of heaven, holding great e)cousi/a, and the earth was (fill)ed with light out of his splendor.” (v. 1)

The Messenger in chapter 17 was identified as one of the group of seven that poured out the Judgment in the bowl-visions, continuing the narrative theme of that vision-cycle. This is a different Messenger, marking a climax to that visionary narrative, announcing the fall of the great city “Babylon” in the most solemn terms. The detail of the earth being filled with light (passive of vb fwti/zw) serves two purposes: (1) it indicates that the great Judgment on earth is coming to a close, and (2) it enhances the dramatic setting for the announcement of the City’s fall. The e)cousi/a (“authority, power, ability”) the Messenger holds is given to him by God, much as the kings of the earth, etc, hold e)cousi/a from the Sea-Creature (who, in turn, holds it from the Dragon).

“And he cried out in a strong voice, saying: ‘Fallen, fallen (is) Babilim (the) great! She even came to be a house put down for daimons, and a guard for every unclean spirit, and a guard for every unclean bird, [and a guard for every unclean wild animal], even (those) having been (full of) hate!'” (v. 2)

This same announcement of Babylon’s fall appeared earlier in 14:8—the same Judgment setting, but in a different vision. The wording resembles that of Isaiah 21:9, while the announcements in chapter 18 as a whole also reflect the oracles against Babylon in Isa 13-14 and Jer 50-51. Throughout the book of Revelation “Babylon” is referred to as “the great (city)”, and symbolizes earthly/worldly power, i.e. as held and exercised by the nations and their kings. At the time of the first destruction of Jerusalem, the pre-eminent Near Eastern Empire was centered at Babylon; at the time of the second destruction, it was the Empire of Rome. For the author and audience of the book of Revelation, at the end of the first century A.D., Rome represented the pinnacle of earthly power, and also its wickedness. As most commentators recognize, the city of Rome (and her empire) is the primary point of reference for the symbol of “Babylon”. For more on this, cf. the prior notes on chapter 17 and 14:8.

Two (related) statements are made about the fallen city:

    • it has become the dwelling-place (“house [set/put] down”) of daimons
    • (it has become) the “guard” (fulakh/) of unclean (and hateful) creatures

This reflects traditional imagery related to any city that has been abandoned or destroyed, leaving it a desolate wasteland. It is typical of the Old Testament nation-oracles (e.g., Isa 34:11-15; Zeph 2:13-14; Jer 9:10-11); however, the language here is specifically drawn from the Old Testament oracles against Babylon (Isa 13:21-22; Jer 50:39; 51:37). The first-century destruction of Jerusalem, as predicted by Jesus, was similarly referred to as her “desolation” (Lk 20:21 [cp. Mk 13:14 par]; Matt 23:38, cf. also Lk 19:41-44), just as it was of “Babylon” earlier in 17:6.

Demons and evil spirits were thought especially to inhabit desolate places (cf. the ±¦z¹°z¢l  Day of Atonement ritual in Lev 16:8ff). This may seem rather superstitious to our thinking today, but it was a very real part of the worldview for many ancient peoples. As far as “unclean birds”, this is very much a natural phenomenon, referring to birds of prey and scavengers who use a desolate city as their haunt; the idea of scavenging off the bodies of the dead is probably alluded to as well. This also applies to “unclean wild animals”, such as jackals, hyenas, etc. There is some textual uncertainty about the phrase referring to “wild animals”, but it is likely original; the repetitious nature of the phrasing would have led copyists, even accidentally, to delete one of the phrases.

“‘(For it is) that out of the wine of the impulse of her prostitution all the nations have drunk, and the kings of the earth engaged in prostitution with her, and the (one)s making passage in (the lands) of the earth (as merchants) became rich out of the power of her rough (pleasure)s.'” (v. 3)

This concludes the Messenger’s announcement, emphasizing again the motif of the prostitution, central to the vision in 17:1-6ff, and also part of the earlier vision in 14:8ff. The related motif of drunkenness, as associated specifically with Babylon, goes back to Jeremiah 51:7. It is natural enough, the association between drunkenness and wickedness. The expression “wine of the impulse (qu/mo$) of her prostitution” repeats the idiom of 14:8; 17:2, and is parallel to the wine of God’s anger—his impulse to punish wickedness (14:10, 18ff; 16:19). The use of wine as a metaphor for blood also alludes in these visions to the persecution and death of believers at the hands of the wicked (16:6; 17:6).

To the imagery of 17:2, 12ff—that of kings engaged in prostitution with “Babylon” —is added the participation of merchants, etc, in her wicked ways. This represents the commercial aspects of imperial power (du/nami$), as people grow rich (vb ploute/w) in connection with the sinful luxury of the Great City. The noun strh=no$ (occurring only here in the New Testament) basically means “roughness”, and I have translated the plural here as “rough (pleasure)s”, connoting passionate and excessive behavior, which runs “roughshot” over accepted standards of morality and decency. Inclusion of merchants/traders in this imagery likely derives from a separate tradition, the oracle against the city-state of Tyre in Ezekiel 27:9-25; it will be developed further in the announcement of 18:4ff.

The second heavenly announcement parallels the first, but is much more extensive, spanning much of the remainder of the chapter (vv. 4-20). The primary message comes in verses 4-8, which will be discussed in the next daily note.

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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 17: Revelation 17:7-8

Revelation 17:7-18

Following the introduction to the vision and the vision itself (vv. 1-6, see the previous notes), an interpretation is provided in verses 7-18. This is rare in the book of Revelation, as most of the visions are given without any interpretation/explanation in the book itself. The closest parallel is with the vision of 1:9-20, where it too is referred to as a “secret” (musth/rion) that the heavenly figure/messenger explains to the seer (v. 20). A narrative transition to the interpretation is provided in verse 6 when the author/seer states “I wondered (with) great wonder” at the vision of the woman. This serves as the basis for the Messenger’s response.

Verse 7

“And the Messenger said to me, ‘Through what [i.e. why] did you wonder? I will utter to you the secret of the woman and the wild animal carrying her, the (one) holding the seven heads and the ten horns.'”

On the significance of the term musth/rion (“secret”), cf. the previous note and my earlier word study series. As noted above, the same word is used in the interpretation of the vision in 1:9-20 (v. 20). The only other occurrence in the book of Revelation is at 10:7, with the sounding of the seventh trumpet (i.e. the conclusion of the great Judgment, par. with the seventh bowl-vision). The expression “the secret of God”, also used by Paul in 1 Cor 2:1; 4:1, and Col 2:2 (cf. also Eph 1:9; 3:3-4ff), generally refers to God’s plan for the Ages, the plan of salvation (through Jesus Christ) which effectively marks the beginning of a New Age (and the end of the current Age). The eschatological significance of the word musth/rion is clear enough in Paul’s letters (see esp. Rom 16:25), even as it is in the book of Revelation.

The Angel’s response to the seer’s wonderment is similar in some respects to Jesus’ response to his disciples at the beginning of the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:2 par). In both instances, what is most significant is the way that the Messenger (the Angel/Jesus) places the eschatological message in the context of the current life-setting of his audience. In the case of Jesus and the Eschatological Discourse, end-time events center around the destruction of the Temple; and the Temple was indeed destroyed, generally within the lifetime of his audience (70 A.D.), though how the other events are to be associated with it remain a matter of considerable debate (cf. my 4-part article on the Discourse). In the book of Revelation, the “secrets” of the visions in 1:9-20 and 17:1-6, are also set in reference to the immediate life-experience of its readers. This is done in the initial vision by identifying the “seven lamp(stand)s” with the Christians of the seven cities addressed in chapters 2-3. It establishes at the outset of the book that the visions relate specifically to the audience of the book—i.e., believers living in Asia Minor toward the end of the first-century A.D. Much the same occurs here in chapter 17. The Sea-creature (with the woman) represents the forces of evil as they are manifest in the centers of earthly power (i.e. kingdoms and their rulers), but with the interpretation of the creature (esp. its heads) this wicked earthly power is set firmly in relation to the readers’ own time and place. This is parallel to the earlier (veiled) interpretation of the name of the Sea-creature in 13:18. The author expected his readers at the time to recognize the reference, meaning that it had to be a name that would have been known to them (however obscure and elusive it may be to us now).

Verse 8

“‘The wild animal that you saw was, and is not, and is about to step up out of the (pit that is) without depth [i.e. bottomless], and (then) lead under [i.e. go away] into ruin—and the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth will wonder, those whose name has not been written upon the paper-roll of life from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, in their looking at the wild animal that was, and is not, and will be along.'”

The creature (lit. “wild animal”, qhri/on) is described with the triad of existential terms: “it was, and is not, and is about to…” (h@n kai\ ou)k e&stin kai\ me/llei). This parodies the language used of God in 1:4, 8 and 4:8 (also 11:17; 16:5) as “the (one) being and the (one who) was and the (one) coming” —expressing God the Father’s comprehensive existence, which can also be applied to the exalted Jesus (with an emphasis on his coming). The main difference with the Sea-creature is that, instead of the being (w&n) of God, it embodies non-being (ou)k e&stin, “is not“). The Sea-creature’s life and existence, as such, is defined as something past: “it was, and (now) is not“. Its coming manifestation is thoroughly evil and demonic, like the living dead. It comes from the deepest place of the earth—the pit “without depth” (a&busso$), meaning without a bottom. This locative imagery was first used in the trumpet visions, depicting the plagues of the Judgment as monstrous creatures coming out of the deep pit (9:1-2, 11, cf. the earlier note). The fact that the creature can be depicted both as coming out of the Sea (13:1ff), and out of the Bottomless Pit (also in 11:7), demonstrates that the symbolism refers to a common idea of the creature as the embodiment of the forces of evil that are at work upon the earth. It steps up out of the Pit, and then will, after a short time, go back into the place of death and ruin. The brief, passing existence it will have on earth is indicated by the verb parei/mi (“be along”, cp. para/gw in 1 Cor 7:31; 1 Jn 2:8, 17, etc); this verb may also be intended as a parody of the end-time parousi/a (“[com]ing to be alongside”) of Jesus (cp. 2 Thess 2:8-9).

Verse 8b clearly refers back to the chapter 13 visions of the Sea-creature. The people living on earth who wonder at the creature, are so fascinated (and deceived by it) that they are willing to worship it and belong to it (by receiving its mark). This process is described in more detail in those earlier visions (cf. the notes on 13:1ff); here it is presented in summary fashion. It also helps to explain the Angel’s response in v. 7: the idea that the seer should not “wonder” (vb qauma/zw) reflects a warning to readers of the book not to be led astray themselves, “wondering” at the Sea-creature. To worship the creature and receive its mark demonstrates that a person is not, and could not have been, a true believer. Those who resist the creature’s influence are the true believers, whose names have been written in the roll of life since the beginning of Creation (cf. 13:8).

The Angel’s interpretation continues in vv. 9ff; because of the historical-critical issues related to the details of the interpretation, it will be necessary to break it up into several notes. Verses 9-11 will be discussed in the next daily note.

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November 13: Revelation 17:5-6

Revelation 17:1-6, continued

Verse 5

“and upon the (space) between her eyes a name having been written, a secret—Babilim the great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking things of the earth.”

The vision of the woman on the seven-headed creature (cf. the previous note on vv. 1-5), concludes with this description of the name on her forehead (lit. the space between the eyes, me/twpon). The parallels with the engraved mark (xa/ragma) of name of the Sea-creature on the forehead of the wicked, and the name of God (and the Lamb) stamped/written on the forehead of believers, are clear enough and have been noted. More precisely, the “secret” of this name matches the hidden meaning (something requiring wisdom and understanding) of the name/number of the Sea-creature in 13:18 (cf. the earlier note). It is hardly coincidental that a veiled interpretation follows here in vv. 7ff, which, in both purpose and emphasis (for the original readers), is similar to the cryptic declaration in 13:18. Let us consider each component of the name presented in verse 5, in turn.

musth/rion (“secret”)—The name, as presented, is said to be a secret—yet, as the interpretation of vv. 7ff indicates, it is a secret that is being revealed, or made known (in part, at least), to readers of the book. The author/seer does much the same thing regarding the name of the Sea-creature at the close of the chapter 13 visions (v. 18). Since the woman here sits upon the Sea-creature, and is so closely identified with it, we may fairly assume that the names are closely connected as well.

In an earlier series of notes, I discussed the use of the word musth/rion in key passages of the New Testament. It often has an eschatological connotation, especially in the letters of Paul, tied to the essential early Christian belief that the revelation of Jesus Christ—through the proclamation of the Gospel and his presence through the Spirit—had ushered in a New Age for believers, even before the end of the current Age was fully realized (1 Cor 2:1ff; Rom 16:25, etc). This is made more explicit in the book of Revelation (10:7), where the coming of the great Judgment marks the moment when the “secret of God” (musth/rion tou= qeou=) is finally completed. More in keeping with the use of musth/rion here is its occurrence in the vision of 1:9-20, where a heavenly Messenger similarly interprets the details of the vision (v. 20).

A close parallel may also be found in the expression “secret of lawlessness” (musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. There, too, the “secret” relates to the manifestation of evil at the end-time, involving a wicked world power (and ruler/emperor). Paul makes known to his readers something of this “secret” and how it is unfolding, just as the Angelic interpreter does for the seer and readers of the book of Revelation. For more on this, cf. the article on the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians (Part 3), as well as my earlier note on the passage.

Babulw/n (“Babilim”)Babulw/n is a transliteration in Greek of the ancient city name meaning “Gate of God” (Akkadian B¹b-Ilim), similarly transliterated in Hebrew as lb#B* (B¹»el); English Babylon derives from the Greek. The ancient Near Eastern city, located along the Euphrates river (cf. 16:12), has a long history extending back until at least the late-3rd millennium B.C. (Ur III period). It also features prominently in Israelite and Jewish tradition, including the famous “Tower of Babel” narrative (Gen 11:1-9), in which the city served as figure and symbol for worldly power which sought to challenge God’s authority and take His position, much as it does in the book of Revelation. More clearly rooted in documented history is the city-state that became a conquering empire in the reign of Hammurabi (18th century) and again in the Neo-Babylonian period of the 7th-6th centuries. This makes it a fitting parallel to Rome as the great empire ruling the Near East in the 1st century A.D. Just as Babylon conquered and destroyed Jerusalem (587 B.C.), so Rome did again in 70 A.D. In the aftermath, Jewish authors clearly made the association (e.g., 2/4 Esdras 3:1-2, 29-31; 16:1; 2 Baruch 10:2; 11:1; 67:7; Sibylline Oracles 5:143, 159; Koester, p. 675).

Most commentators assume that in the New Testament (both in Revelation and also 1 Peter 5:13) “Babylon” is a cypher for Rome and the Roman Empire, and this does seem to be correct. The earliest surviving Christian interpretation (outside of the book of Revelation itself) clearly makes such an identification (e.g., Tertullian, Hippolytus, Victorinus, etc), a point that will be discussed further in the upcoming notes (on verses 7ff).

h( mega/lh (“the great”)—In the book of Revelation, “Babylon” is always called “the great” (14:8; 16:19; 18:2, 21) and is also identified specifically with “the great city” (16:19; 18:21). The latter expression is used in 11:8, where it is more properly identified with Jerusalem, but is there also called “Sodom” and “Egypt”. This shows that we must be cautious about limiting “Babylon” and “the great city” to Rome. In my view, as I have already discussed in recent notes, the imagery is more widely encompassing, as a symbol of worldly power—i.e. the nations and their governments and rulers, etc—as a manifestation of the forces of evil (the Sea-creature and Dragon) at work upon the earth. For readers of the book of Revelation, the Roman Empire and its Imperial administration (over Asia Minor, etc) would be the immediate point of reference. For a clear sense of the wider view of this symbolism, see especially the seventh bowl-vision (16:17-21 and my note on the passage).

h( mh/thr (“the mother”)—This plays on the typical use of feminine language and imagery to describe cities and nations (here the woman, v. 1, 3), with the motif of “mother” signifying both parental authority and the dependence of children (i.e. the populace) on her for nurturing care. Rome at times was called ‘mother of (all) cities’ and Italy the ‘mother of all countries’ (cf. Pliny the Elder Natural History 3.39; Koester, p. 675). However, perhaps even more prominent in the vision is the idea that the woman on the creature gives birth to all kinds of evils in the world. This would play into the parallel with the Woman in the chapter 12 vision, who gives birth both to Jesus (her first son) and believers (her other children).

tw=n pornw=n (“of the prostitutes”)—This woman, identified as a prostitute (po/rnh), would naturally give birth to other prostitutes, who are just like her and follow her example. The kings of the earth are said to engage in prostitution with her and “drink” from her cup of wickedness—thus, these other cities and nations likewise become prostitutes.

kai\ tw=n bdelugma/twn (“and of the stinking things”)—This expression echoes the wording in verse 4; the immediate reference is to Daniel 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11), as interpreted by early Christians, in the eschatological sense of a wicked kingdom (and ruler) who will oppose God, profaning His holiness and persecuting His people (Mark 13:14; cp. 2 Thess 2:3-4ff; Revelation 13).

th=$ gh=$ (“of the earth”)—In these visions, the “Earth” (gh=) symbolizes the inhabited world (of humankind), specifically in relation to the dark forces of evil (the Sea) that exercise influence and control over it. The earthly nations and governments (“kings of the earth”) are primarily in view.

Verse 6

“And I saw the woman being intoxicated out of the blood of the holy (one)s and out of the blood of the witnesses of Yeshua, and seeing her I wondered (with) great wonder.”

Even as the woman in the vision intoxicates the nations and kings of earth with the wine of her wickedness, so she becomes intoxicated herself on the blood of believers. The pouring out of wine as a figure for the shedding of blood is a natural enough image, one which the Judgment-visions in Revelation play on at several points—14:17-20; 16:3-6. The drinking of blood (and becoming drunken with it) could also be used in a military setting—i.e. for the chaos and carnage of a battle (Isa 34:5; Jer 46:10; Ezek 39:18-19; Zech 9:15; Judith 6:4). For an application of the motif to a Roman Emperor, cf. Suetonius Tiberius 59.1. Here, it refers to the persecution and putting to death of believers in Christ (“holy ones”), especially insofar as they are “witnesses” of Jesus and the Gospel. For the special sense of ma/rtu$ / marturi/a (“witness”, vb marture/w) in the book of Revelation, in the context of the end-time persecution, cf. 1:2, 5, 9; 2:13; 3:14; 6:9; 11:3, 7; 12:11, 17; 19:10; 20:4; 22:16-20. Cf. Koester, pp. 675-6.

At this point, we read that the seer (John) “wondered with great wonder” at the sight of this woman. This sets the stage for the interpretation that follows in verses 7ff (to be discussed in the next note). It also emphasizes the extraordinary (and climactic) nature of the vision. It most effectively serves as the conclusion to the entire sequence of visions beginning with chapter 12. The parallels with the initial vision of 12:1ff should be obvious, as each involves an extraordinary image of a woman. The first woman, symbolizing the People of God, is seen clothed in celestial splendor (indicating especially her heavenly aspect). The second woman, by contrast, represents wickedness and the wicked on earth, being clothed with luxurious earthly garments. The first woman is in conflict with the Dragon and Sea-creature, being pursued by them; the second woman, is the companion of the Sea-creature, united and identified with it—indeed, she gains support and power, etc, by being seated upon it. The motif of conflict/persecution in the earlier vision is picked up again in the present vision with the description here in verse 6.

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