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 22: Revelation 17:12-14

Revelation 17:7-18, continued

Verse 12

“And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings, th(ose) which did not yet receive a kingdom, but they receive e)cousi/a as kings (for) one hour with the wild animal.”

In verses 9-11, the Messenger interpreted the seven heads of the Sea-creature as kings, correlating them to the time of the vision (and the writing of the book, i.e. its readers). In the previous note, I discussed the generally accepted view that the Sea-creature =represents the Roman Empire, as a predominant symbol of corrupt and wicked worldly power–with the seven mountains alluding to Rome and her ‘seven hills’, and the seven kings as first-century emperors up to (and beyond) the readers’ own time. Various attempts have been made to identity the seven with a particular sequence of seven emperors, and I noted what I regard as the two most plausible such schema. However, both seven and ten are symbolic numbers, functioning as symbols in the visions, and should not be made to fit historical circumstances exactly. Indeed, the division of 5+2 is a numeric scheme utilized in the vision-cycles—visions 1-5 grouped together, followed by visions 6 and 7; this is particularly true in both the seal-vision and bowl-vision cycles. Similarly, here the first five kings form a group—those who have “fallen” (i.e. have died or been killed), ruling in the past; the last two reign in the present and immediate future.

Likewise, the ten horns are also kings, just as the ten horns of the fourth creature in the Daniel 7 vision (vv. 7-8, 11, 20ff, 24ff; on the horn as a symbol of power and strength, cf. the prior note on 13:1). In the earlier description, the horns were said to have “diadems” (cloth/silk band wrapped around), indicating a royal status. Thus there are two groups of kings. Important details are offered by the Angelic interpreter which help to identify the nature of these “kings”:

    • “(they) did not yet receive a kingdom”
    • “they receive e)cousi/a as kings for one hour…”

This wording suggests that they are not rulers in the sense that the “heads” are, i.e. are not emperors; rather they are vassal kings, who receive kingship and rule from the head-king (emperor), reigning as semi-independent subordinates, but only for a relatively short time. Governing the vast territory of the Roman Empire, with its ethnic and cultural diversity, required that local vassal kings be employed on occasion, and in certain places. Herod the Great was just such a king (over Judea), one who could be removed from power at any time, as Rome saw fit. This king-making authority is demonstrated by a historical anecdote associated with the emperor Nero; when a Parthian leader offered his allegiance to Rome (and Nero), the emperor is said to have responded, “I now declare you king of Armenia…I have power to take away kingdoms and to bestow them” (Dio Cassius, Roman History 62.5.3, as cited in Koester, p. 679). Here in verse 12 the wording is clear: the horn-kings receive their kingdoms from the head-king, and they also receive the e)cousi/a from him to act as kings. The noun e)cousi/a is difficult to render literally in English, as I have often noted; basically it refers to a person’s own ability to do something, often in the sense of it being granted to him/her from a superior (i.e. the authority to do something). That is very much the situation here. These kings rule “(together) with” the Sea-creature (and its head), meaning that they reign under the creature’s authority.

As mentioned above, the specific number ten is symbolic, and it is probably foolish to attempt an identification of these horns with an actual set of ten vassal kings who reigned at a particular time. It may well be that the combination of head(s) and horns serves as a comprehensive symbol for the nations—those of the known world at the time, i.e. the Roman Empire and its vassals. This idea of the nations as a collective group was expressed differently in the last two bowl-visions:

    • Vision 6 (16:12-16)—Kings cross the great River (Euphrates), expanding to comprise all the kings of the inhabited world, who gather for battle in the day of Judgment
    • Vision 7 (16:17-21)—When the great City (Babylon) is toppled, all the cities of the nations—mountains and islands, etc—likewise fall and break apart; this is a depiction of the Judgment anticipated in the sixth vision (cf. 19:11-21)
Verse 13

“These hold one mind and give their power and e)cousi/a to the wild animal.”

The unity of these kings (nations) in their purpose and intention is emphasized. This indicates more than their loyalty to the Sea-creature (and its head); it anticipates their common hostility toward the creature, to be described in verses 16ff. However, they clearly recognize their status as vassals, acknowledging that their power and authority (e)cousi/a) comes from the Sea-creature. This generally reflects the situation in the Roman Empire, where the vassal rulers and nations had to acknowledge Rome’s sovereignty, but would seek any opportunity for true independence, to break free from Roman authority, if this were possible.

Verse 14

“These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will be victorious over them, (in) that [i.e. because] he is (the) Lord of lords and King of kings, and the (one)s with him (are) called and gathered out and trusting (one)s.”

This verse summarizes the Judgment of the nations, as in the earlier visions of 14:17-20 and 16:17-21; it will be depicted in much greater detail in 19:11-21. There are three components to the description here:

    • War with the kings of the nations and their defeat
    • The Lamb (Jesus) identified as the greatest King and embodiment of all kingship and rule
    • Believers who serve (and rule) as his vassals

The initial wording (“they will make war with [the Lamb]”) reflects that of the conflict-visions in chapters 12-13, where the Dragon and Sea-creature likewise “make war with” the people of God (believers / offspring of the Woman, cf. 12:7ff, 17; 13:7). Likewise in the sixth bowl-vision, the kings of all the nations gather together to make war; ostensibly, the evil purpose of their gathering is to make war against God (here against the Lamb), but the Judgment they will face may, it seems, also involves their fighting against each other (vv. 16ff).

In depicting Jesus as the Lamb, this detail of the interpretation continues the emphasis on his death and resurrection that is central to the Christological portrait in the book of Revelation. It also reflects the uniquely Christian understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), whose suffering and death was altogether contrary to the traditional Messianic figure-types in Judaism at the time. Jesus, in his earthly life, never fulfilled the traditional role, for example, of the David-ruler figure, who would subdue and punish the wicked nations. This was reserved for the time of his future return; even so, it is rarely mentioned in the New Testament; even in the book of Revelation it is, for the most part, only hinted at. At several points, the conquering Messiah of the end-time is anticipated (1:6-7; 12:10; 14:14-16ff), but is finally depicted only in the vision of 19:11-21 (to be discussed).

The three-fold reference to believers—using the adjectives klhto/$ (“called”), e)klekto/$ (“gathered out”), and pisto/$ (“trusting, trustworthy”)—is a bit curious. The context might suggest that Christians join with Jesus to do battle against the wicked nations, much as the Qumran Community seems to have imagined would take place in the great Eschatological/Messianic war (cf. especially the so-called War Scroll [1QM]). While the book of Revelation draws upon this same general tradition, it is unlikely that this is a reference to believers making war as part of the Lamb’s ‘army’. In my view, the mention of believers here brings together three important strands from the visionary narrative:

    • The idea of believers following the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4)
    • A continuation of the immediate symbolism–believers are “with” Jesus the King as his vassals, even as the horns/kings are vassals of the Sea-creature (and its head), ruling “with” him
    • The traditional motif of believers (the Elect, e)klektoi/) being gathered together to meet Jesus at his return (Mk 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:14-16; 2 Thess 2:1)

This discussion will be picked up in the next daily note, on vv. 15-18.

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November 18: Revelation 17:9-11

Revelation 7:7-18, continued

An initial interpretation of the chapter 17 vision (the Woman on the Sea-creature) was given in verses 7-8 (discussed in the previous note); it is explained in more detail here in verses 9ff. Given the challenges and difficulties in understanding the rich symbolism of the book’s visions, special care should be given to those few passages, in the book itself, where an interpretation is provided. It is somewhat surprising that more attention is not given to these verses for an explanation of the Creature (or “Beast”) from the Sea as a symbol. A careful examination would all but eliminate some of the more outlandish lines of interpretation that have been offered in recent times. We might echo the opening words of the heavenly Messenger in verse 9: “Here a mind holding wisdom (is needed)”.

Verse 9

“Here a mind holding wisdom (is needed). The seven heads are seven mountains, at which (place) there the woman sits upon them. And they are (also) seven kings…”

They Messenger states the matter clearly: the seven heads of the Sea-creature represent seven mountains and also seven kings. Let us consider each of these.

Mountains—Before rushing into fanciful explanations in attempts to identify these “mountains” (or “hills”, o&rh), one ought to first examine carefully what the imagery would have meant to the author and original readers of the book. Anyone living in the Roman Empire during the latter part of the first-century A.D. likely would have been familiar with the representation of Rome as a woman seated on seven hills. It is clearly depicted so on many coins of the period (cf. the example here below).

Thus most readers of the book would have recognized the symbolism as referring to the Roman Empire. The “seven hills” of Rome itself was a traditional designation, already well-established by the end of the first century (e.g., Propertius, Elegies 3.111.57; Ovid, Tristia 1.5.69-60; Statius Silvae 4.1.6; cf. Koester, p. 677, 690). Though the specific identification of exactly seven hills has varied somewhat (cf. the diagram below), the tradition of seven dominates, being much more significant than the geographical data.

However, while the identification with Rome is clear enough, this does not represent the full extent of the symbolism. In both ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman tradition, mountains were symbolic of earthly kingdoms and their kings. In the prior note on the seventh bowl-vision (16:17-21), I discussed how this symbolism applied to the Judgment of the nations, along with the image of “Babylon” as the “Great City”. Both the waters of the Sea and the mountains of the Earth represent the worldly power of the nations in its wicked and evil aspect. We might note, in this regard, some interesting examples from Greco-Roman and Jewish literature, such as in Dio Chrysostom (Oration 1.78-84) where tyranny is personified as a woman sitting on a mountain. According to the imagery of 1 Enoch 18:6-8 (also 24:1ff) there are seven mountains in heaven where God’s throne is located; an important (eschatological) theme in 1 Enoch involves the failure of the wicked nations (and their rulers) to acknowledge properly the authority of God, seeking instead to take over His rule on earth themselves. Cf. Koester, p. 677.

Kings—This corresponds entirely with the mountain-symbolism, as noted above. More importantly, this line of interpretation follows that of the vision in Daniel 7, though there it is the horns of the creature, rather than its head(s), which represent particular rulers of the kingdom (as also here in vv. 12ff). With regard to the specific relationship between mountain and king, there are two possible ways that the imagery may be understood:

    • Each mountain represents a kingdom (i.e. nation or city-state), along with its ruler (king)—the seven collectively represent the nations as a whole, and/or a sequence of nations (as in the visions of Daniel 2 and 7)
    • As the seven mountains represent the seven hills of Rome, so the kings are Roman emperors

The second option better fits the immediate context of the interpretation in chap. 17.

Verse 10

“…the five are fallen, the one is, the other (has) not yet come—and, when he should come, it is necessary for him to remain (only) a little (while).”

The wording here plays on that of verse 8, referring to the Sea-creature as one who “was, and is not, and is about to (come…)”. As I discussed in the previous note, that phrase is an evil parody of the description of God Himself (as well as Jesus Christ) in 1:4,8; 4:8 (also 11:17; 16:5). Now the same phrase is given a new interpretation in terms of earthly kingdoms and kings. This is in keeping with the symbolism of the book, whereby many symbols have both heavenly and earthly aspects. Here the ‘heavenly’ aspect of the Sea-creature, representing the forces of evil, lies in its opposition to God, imitating the Divine power and presence so as to lead the entire world astray. On the earthly level, this reflects the influence and control of nations (and their kings) by the same forces of evil. For the readers of the book of Revelation, the current pinnacle of earthly power, ruling a vast empire, is Rome, the city on seven hills. As such, most critical commentators would identify the first six “kings” in verse 10 with first-century Roman emperors. The wording of the text itself indicates that five kings have died (“fallen”), and one is currently alive and ruling (“is”). On this basis, various attempts have been made to identify the six kings with specific emperors; of these, two are the most viable, depending upon when the book was written (cf. Koester, p. 73):

    1. Augustus
    2. Tiberius
    3. Gaius (Caligula)
    4. Claudius
    5. Nero (54-68 A.D.)
    6. Galba (68-69 A.D.)
    1. Gaius (Caligula)
    2. Claudius
    3. Nero
    4. Vespasian (69-79 A.D.)
    5. Titus (79-81 A.D.)
    6. Domitian (81-96 A.D.)

The first option, which assumes a date for the book of c. 69 A.D., has several advantages:

    • It includes all of the 1st-century emperors to that point, beginning with Augustus
    • Nero is the last of the five who died, which would give special emphasis to the idea that he might return
    • The brief reigns of four emperors in 68-69 could reflect the expectation that the coming emperor would reign only a “little while”

Most critical commentators would not date the book quite so early, preferring a time closer to 90-95 A.D., during the reign of Domitian. This would be the second option above, which may be preferred for the following reasons:

    • The period begins with the reign of Gaius (Caligula), the most notoriously wicked of the emperors (along with Nero); it thus marks the period of Imperial rule as especially wicked and opposed to God.
    • It allows more time for the return-of-Nero legends to develop and influence the Sea-creature imagery in chaps. 13ff
    • It retains a climactic position for the destruction of Jerusalem (and the Temple), an important eschatological keystone (and time indicator) for early Christians
    • The limited persecution indicated in the book would seem best to fit the reign of Domitian, and a late first-century time-frame
Verse 11

“And the wild animal, that was and is not, even he (himself) is the eighth (king), and is out of the seven, and leads under [i.e. goes away] into ruin.”

This is perhaps the most important part of the interpretation, and it shows rather clearly, I think, how this unusual symbolism fits together. It reflects a line of tradition expressed some time earlier (by Paul) in 2 Thessalonians. I have discussed the famous eschatological passage in 2 Thess 2:1-12 as part of an article in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. I would isolate the basic tradition as follows, guided by the expressions in 2 Thess 2:6-7ff:

    • “the (thing) holding down (power)”:
      The Roman Imperial government, embodying the “secret of lawlessness” currently at work in the world
      = the Woman on the Sea-creature as the “secret” of the forces at evil in the world, along with the first five heads (kings) of the creature
    • “the (one) holding down (power)”:
      The current/reigning Roman emperor, who soon will be removed (i.e. taken “out of the middle”)
      = the sixth king who currently is, and/or the seventh who is coming
    • “the lawless (one)”:
      A Satanic, demonic-inspired ruler (emperor) who will control all people
      = the eighth king

Based on the wickedness of the Roman Imperial government, manifest especially in several of the emperors (Gaius, Nero), it was easy enough for early Christians to envision an even more wicked ruler, following after the pattern of Gaius and/or Nero, coming to power over the Empire. The Old Testament Scriptures had already provided the eschatological template for this figure, from the visions in Daniel 7 and 9 (and again in chaps. 11-12), referring primarily to the historical figure of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. At the same time, other nation-oracles played on the same general idea of a wicked foreign ruler who speaks and acts against God, and who might dare to assume the role and authority of God on earth. In certain strands of Jewish tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D., it is the Evil One himself (i.e. Belial) who is embodied in the form of this wicked end-time ruler. Ultimately this is the basis for the “Antichrist” tradition among early Christians, a subject I will be discussing in detail in an upcoming article. I would maintain that both 2 Thessalonians and the book of Revelation attest a belief, among Jews and Christians of the period, that the final (Imperial) ruler of the end-time will be a truly demonic figure, if not Belial himself.

Because this idea is so critical to the interpretation of the vision in chapter 17, I feel it is necessary to discuss the matter a bit further, which I will do, in the next two notes, beginning with an exposition of vv. 12-14.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout these notes, are to Craig L. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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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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November 12: Revelation 17:1-5

Revelation 17-18

In chapter 17-18 there is presented a pair of visions which build upon the “Fall of Babylon” theme in the seventh bowl-vision (cf. the note on 16:17-21), and announced previously in 14:8. Each of these chapters consists of an initial vision (17:1-6; 18:1-3), followed by a detailed exposition. In the first instance an interpretation of the vision is provided by the Messenger, in the second, the poetry of the vision is followed by a longer poem patterned after the oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51.

Revelation 17:1-6

“And one out of the seven Messengers holding the seven offering-dishes came and spoke with me, saying: ‘Come here, (and) I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute th(at is) sitting upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth engaged in prostitution, and the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] on the earth were intoxicated out of the wine of her prostitution!’ And he led me away from (there) into a desolate (place), in the Spirit, and I saw a woman sitting upon a crimson-colored wild animal full of names of insult (to God) (and) holding seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was (as one) having cast about (her) purple and crimson (garments), and having been made golden with gold and honorable [i.e. valuable] stone and pearls, holding a drinking-cup in her hand being full of stinking things and the unclean (thing)s of her prostitution; 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!” (vv. 1-5)

The narrative introduction to this vision (v. 1) demonstrates its close connection to the bowl-cycle of chapters 15-16; in many ways, chapters 17-19 are part of this same cycle, representing a continuation of the sixth and seventh visions. The judgment of “Babylon” has already been depicted in the seventh bowl-vision (cf. the previous note) and the earlier visions in chapter 14 (vv. 8ff), and here we have the same basic visionary event described in different terms (and in considerably more detail). Like all the bowl-visions, the symbolism represents the traditional eschatological idea of the Judgment of the Nations, with “Babylon”, the “great city”, representing the nations (and their rulers/governments) collectively. Nations and cities are typically referred to in feminine terms—a vestige of which survives even today in English—and may thus be personified and symbolized as a woman, with female imagery. The wickedness of the “great city” (Babylon) has already been emphasized, along with the use of wine imagery (i.e. the drinking-cup of wine) to represent it (14:8ff; 16:19). Though not occurring here in chapter 17, the word qumo/$ (“impulse”) is used to describe this intoxicating ‘wine’ (i.e. an impulse toward wickedness), even as it is for God’s own desire to punish it by pouring out the ‘wine’ of His anger (14:8, 10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19).

This set of images naturally comes together here in the figure of a prostitute (po/rnh). The Greek pornei/a (vb porneu/w) properly refers to acts of prostitution (sexual intercourse for hire). However, like the similar root hnz in Hebrew, it can also be used more generally of sexual immorality (including adultery, etc), as well as figuratively, in the religious sense, for unfaithfulness to God (idolatry, false religious practices, etc). The wicked and idolatrous “nations” are occasionally referred to as prostitutes in the oracles of the Old Testament Prophets (Isa 23:16-17; Nah 3:4), as is God’s own people Israel when they fall away from him (Hos 4:12-13; 5:3; Jer 3:1-14; Ezek 16:15-22ff; 23:1-49; cf. also Hos 2:5; Jer 2:20; Koester, p. 671).

In the Greco-Roman world, the common prostitute was simply called po/rnh, while the wealthier courtesan, supported by a higher-class clientele, was known as a e(tai/ra (lit. female companion). The imagery here in chapter 17 draws from traditional descriptions of both upper- and lower-class prostitutes. Generally her wealth and prominence are emphasized (clothing and jewelry, etc), but the motif of drunkenness suggests a lower-class milieu. For relevant citations from Greco-Roman literature, see those given by Koester, pp. 671-2.

This prostitute is associated with the Sea, a symbol of the dark and turbulent domain of evil that goes back to the visions in chapter 12-13. This association is expressed two ways:

    • she is sitting (kaqhme/nh$) upon (e)pi/) “many waters” (v. 1), and
    • she is sitting (kaqhme/nh$) upon (e)pi/) a creature nearly identical to the one which came out of the Sea (v. 3, cp. 13:1ff)

In the third bowl-vision (16:4-7), the “waters” (rivers and fountains) effectively represent the presence of the Sea upon the earth—symbolizing, specifically, the presence and influence of the dark forces of evil over the kingdoms of the earth. At the same time, the expression “many waters” is also associated with the presence of God in heaven (1:15; 14:2; 19:6), and so here likely alludes to an attempt by the evil-forces on earth to deceive people by appearing and acting ‘like God’. This is rather clearly expressed in the chapter 13 visions; cf. also Paul’s description of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3-4ff.

That the “kings of the earth” both engage in prostitution with this “woman” and become intoxicated by her “wine” —the two images refer to the same thing—means that they are influenced by her and, in a real sense, are united with her (cf. Paul’s line of argument in 1 Cor 6:12-20). The motif of “drunkenness” suggests that the nations (and its leaders) no longer understand what they are doing, becoming completely under the influence and control of the prostitute’s wickedness. And, indeed, her influence is that of the waters and the sea-creature (i.e. forces of evil) upon which she sits, and whose ultimate power stems from the evil Dragon (the Satan/Devil). For the specific association of drunkenness with prostitution, cf. Ezekiel 23:40-42; Testament of Judah 13:5-6, and the references in Koester, p. 672.

The actual vision of the prostitute comes in verse 3, where the seer (“John”) is again taken “in the Spirit” (1:10; 4:2; 21:10; cf. Ezek 3:12; 8:3) to a new visionary location—into a desolate (i.e. desert) place. The desert was a traditional setting for the People of God encountering YHWH (or His Messenger); given the context here of the prostitute, etc, a specific allusion to Hosea 2:14-15 may be in mind. The description of the prostitute may be outlined as follows:

  1. Verse 3. She is sitting on a creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) nearly identical in appearance to the creature that came out of the Sea (13:1ff), who also happens to resemble the Dragon (12:3). The only difference here is the mention of its color as dark red (crimson/scarlet, ko/kkino$). The mention of the color is likely two-fold: (a) to show the close connection and affinity between the woman and the creature, and (b) as an allusion to the wine which she gives people to drink. There is no reason to think that this is anything other than the same Sea-creature of chapter 13, and, as such, its symbolism is also the same. By “sitting upon” the Sea-creature, even as she sits upon the dark/evil waters (v. 1), it is demonstrated that the prostitute receives her support (and power) from the evil Sea-creature.
  2. Verse 4a. Her attire—clothed in luxurious purple and crimson (ko/kkino$) garments, with gold ornaments and jewelry inset with precious stones and pearls. As noted above, this marks her as a high-class courtesan. Purple was especially associated with royalty, indicating her influence over the “kings of the earth”; while the crimson could also allude specifically to the shedding of blood (14:19-20; 16:6; 19:2), even as it does to the wine of her wickedness.
  3. Verse 4b. The drinking-cup of wine she holds—on this cup and the motif of wine, cf. above and the earlier note on 14:8ff. While previously, the wine-cup was identified generally with her impulse (qumo/$) to wickedness, here it is said to be filled specifically with the “stinking things” (bdelugma/ta) and “unclean (thing)s” (a)ka/qarta) of her actual prostitution. The motifs of drunkenness and dirtiness reveal the lower-class side of the prostitute. The most notable occurrence of the noun bde/lugma outside of the book of Revelation (also v. 5; 21:27) is in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13:14 par), where it alludes to Daniel 9:27 (and 11:31; 12:11). Almost certainly it has the same sort of eschatological significance here—i.e. of a wicked ruling power that opposes God, profaning His holiness and persecuting His people (cf. again the visions in chapter 13).
  4. Verse 5. The name written on her forehead (lit. the space between the eyes). This corresponds with the “mark” (xa/ragma) of the Sea-creature (its name) that the people on earth receive, marking them as belonging to the creature, and thus as wicked unbelievers (13:16; 14:9; 20:4). By contrast, true believers do not receive this mark; rather, they are marked/sealed by the name God and the Lamb (Jesus) in the same middle of the forehead (7:3; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4)—in 14:1, it is specifically said to be written (perfect participle gegramme/non, as here) on the forehead.

The name on the prostitute’s forehead is said to be “Babylon” (Babulw/n), and is described in verse 5b. This aspect of the woman—her identification with Babylon, in the overall context of the vision—will be discussed in detail in the next daily note.

References above (and throughout this series) marked “Koester” are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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November 11: Revelation 16:17-21

Revelation 16:12-21, continued

The sixth vision (vv. 12-16) was examined in the previous note. We saw how that vision of the Judgment of the nations, presented after the pattern of nation-oracles in the Prophets (Joel 3, Zech 12, etc)—the “Day of YHWH” theme—was left unfulfilled. As in the prior Seal- and Trumpet-vision cycles, there is a pause or interval after the sixth vision. Here the interval consists of the seventh vision itself, along with the announcement of the Fall of Babylon (17:1-19:3), before the scene in the sixth vision finally comes to a close.

Revelation 16:17-21: Seventh Vision

“And the seventh (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the sky, and a great voice came out of the shrine, from the ruling-seat, saying: ‘It has come to be‘.” (v. 17)

Each of the seven Messengers (Angels) pours the dish in a different location; while this is not presented systematically, the locations generally correspond to four regions (and elements) that comprise the world:

    • Earth (gh=), earth, the dry land and domain of human beings, i.e. the inhabited world—Vision 1 (v. 1)
    • Sea (qa/lassa), water, also symbolizing the dark, chaotic domain (of evil)—Vision 2 & 3 (vv. 3ff)
    • Sun (h%lio$), fire, i.e. the heavenly domain from which the fiery Judgment (fire from heaven) comes—Vision 5 (v. 8)
    • Sky (a)h/r), air, the atmosphere and expanse of the sky, where winds blow, etc, traditionally signifying power and authority—Vision 7 (v. 17)

The significance of the sky or “air” here in the seventh vision probably has to do with two factors: (1) the atmosphere as the space in between heaven and earth, and (2) as a symbol of power, authority, control, etc. The immediate context is the Judgment on the nations—that is, earthly kingdoms and centers of power—symbolized primarily by the “great city” (Babylon). As previously noted, ancient Near Eastern cities were located on hills and elevated sites, and so here drawing appropriately upon the mountain-image, i.e. a place located between heaven and earth—above the earth (and the general human population), but beneath heaven (and the heavenly beings).

All of the visions in chapters 15-16 involve messages (and messengers) coming from out of the sanctuary (nao/$, “shrine”) in heaven. Gradually, we are taken further back into the sanctuary, so that we see these messages coming, first from the altar in the sanctuary, and now from the innermost shrine (‘holy of holies’). The allusion here is to the golden chest (‘ark of the covenant’) which effectively served as the throne (qro/no$, “ruling-seat”) of YHWH in the ancient Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple. It represents the dwelling place of God among His People, and the “great voice” coming from it must be that of God Himself (as also in verse 1). The message consists of a single word: ge/gonen, “it has come to be”, a solemn announcement that the great Judgment is about to be fulfilled.

“And there came to be (lightning) flashes and voices and thunders, and there came to be a great shaking, such as (has) not come to be from the (time at) which man came to be upon the earth, a (mighty) shaking of such size as this!” (v. 18)

By pouring the dish upon the sky (the atmosphere), the initial effect is to cause terrifying celestial phenomena. In Israelite tradition, God (El-YHWH) was often association with the storm, and described with ancient storm-theophany images—lightning, thunder, wind, etc. The use of the word “voices” here is based on the traditional motif of thunder as the “voice” (Hebrew loq) of God. These same phenomena were manifest at the end of the Trumpet-cycle (11:19), and, indeed, such supernatural phenomena and upheavals of the natural order were a well-established part of Jewish eschatology and apocalyptic—a way of describing God’s end-time Judgment (cf. Mark 13:24-26 par; Rev 6:12-17, and prophetic passages such as Isaiah 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; and Ezek 32:7). In particular, the “shaking” (seismo/$), usually understood as that of an earthquake, is emphasized, since it is what will topple the “great city”.

The repeated use of the verb gi/nomai (4 times, aorist middle “came to be, has come to be”) stems from God’s voice declaring “it has come to be” (perfect passive, ge/gonen). It illustrates how God’s word governs completely the execution of the Judgment; most translations, unfortunately, totally ignore this important bit of wordplay.

“And the great city came to be into three parts—and the cities of the nations fell! And (so) Babilim the great was remembered in the sight of God—to give her the drinking-cup of the wine of the impulse of His anger.” (v. 19)

These are not two events, but two ways of describing the same event. Moreover, it should be obvious (if there was any doubt) that “the great city” and “Babylon the great” (14:8; chaps. 17-18) do not refer to an actual geographical location, but symbolize earthly/worldly power—i.e. the nations and their governments. Two images are brought together to depict this judgment: (1) an earthquake, natural enough for the destruction of a city, and (2) the wine-cup (14:9-11, 17-20, and the motif of the offering-dishes being poured out). A full (four-fold) descriptive chain is used here for the wine-cup—”the cup of the wine of the impulse of His anger”, adding to the solemn power of the moment.

There is again an echo of God’s word (ge/gonen, “it has come to be”) at the opening of this verse: “it came to be” (e)ge/neto).

“And (then) the islands fled and the mountains were not found, and great falling (hail) as a talent-weight (size) stepped [i.e. came] down out of heaven upon the men (of earth), and (yet) the men insulted God out of the striking of the falling (hail), (in) that [i.e. because] the great striking of it was most violent.” (vv. 20-21)

This is an interesting juxtaposition of images that illustrates the unique visionary logic of the book of Revelation. The upheaval of the islands and mountains, itself a traditional image (Judg 5:5; Job 9:5-6ff; Psalm 18:7; 46:2-3; 97:5; 104:7, 32; Isa 40:4; 42:15; 54:10; Nah 1:5; Ezek 38:20; Mark 11:23 par; Rev 6:14-16), is suddenly transformed into a scene of giant hailstones falling from the sky. Very likely the latter image is another echo of the Egyptian Plagues (Exod 9:24), though, in an agricultural society, hail was a natural enough symbol of disaster and divine judgment (Isa 30:30; Josh 10:11; Ezek 38:22; Sirach 39:29). Overall, the imagery suggests massive boulder-like objects thrown about; the breakup of the mountains, etc, on earth is a fitting symbol for the breakdown and end of the current Age (6:14ff).

Even more important is the specific symbolism of the islands and mountains—both represent the nations and their power on earth. The association of the nations with islands goes back to Old Testament tradition (Psalm 72:10; Zeph 2:11; cf. also Sirach 47:16; 1 Macc 11:38). An island, as a protected location with direct access to the sea, could serve as an effective center of power, even the basis for an empire (ancient Crete being a notable example). Rome’s power, too, largely depended upon its control of the sea. A mountain as a symbol of (earthly) power is perhaps even more obvious. As previously noted, many cities in the ancient Near East were situated on hill-tops or elevated mounds, which likewise gave the city (and its rulers) protection and the opportunity to extend control over the surrounding populations. The great city “Babylon” is associated with seven mountains (or hills), identified with the seven heads of the Sea-creature, in 17:9 (to be discussed). Thus, the fall of cities could quite properly, and appropriately, be described in terms of a falling/crumbling mountain.

As in the fourth and fifth visions (vv. 9, 11; cf. also 9:20-21), humankind, faced with the Judgment, insults God (vb blasfhme/w). This suggests that, even up to the very end, people have the opportunity to repent and turn to God, but apparently none do; rather, their reaction serves to confirm their wicked nature, and that they are deserving of punishment.

In the next daily note, we will turn to the complex set of visions, interpretations, and visionary poetry that makes up the announcement of the Fall of Babylon (in chapters 17-18). We will seek to keep in mind throughout the place of these chapters in the overall context of the vision-cycle we have been studying.

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November 10: Revelation 16:12-16

Revelation 16:12-21

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

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

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

Revelation 16:12-16: Vision 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 9: Revelation 16:1-11

Revelation 16:1-11

The actual cycle of seven bowl-visions occurs in chapter 16, the drama of the scene having been built up in the prior two chapters, especially the vision in chap. 15. The seven Messengers (Angels) hold seven “plagues” (plhgai/)—disasters sent by God which are to “strike” the earth. The motif of the bowls (“offering-dishes”, fia/lai) is related to the image of wine poured out on the earth as a symbol of Judgment (cf. the previous note). The two sets of images are combined, so that the “plagues” are poured out of the dishes; the historical tradition of the Egyptian Plagues (Exodus 7-12) very much influences the imagery of these visions.

The earlier trumpet-cycle of visions also depicted the great Judgment upon the earth; however, in that cycle, the focus was on the wickedness of humankind generally, while here the bowl-visions more properly emphasize the judgment of the nations. In particular, the first five visions are centered on the domain and influence of the Sea-creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) from chapter 13, as was the vision in 14:9-11. Note the thematic structure of the first four visions:

    • Vision 1: A painful mark upon all human beings who received the “mark” of the Sea-creature
      • Vision 2: Judgment upon the Sea—turned to blood
      • Vision 3: Judgment upon the Sea (its waters) as they exist on/in the earth—also turned to blood
    • Vision 4: A burning of all human beings (i.e. those who ‘belong’ to the Sea-creature)

The outer visions 1 and 4 target humankind as those belonging to the Sea-creature, while the inner visions 2 and 3 directly target the Sea itself.

Verse 1

“And I heard a great voice out of the shrine saying to the seven Messengers: ‘Lead (yourselves) under [i.e. go away] and pour out onto the earth the seven (thing)s of the impulse of God (that are) to strike!'” (v. 1)

As the Messengers, in these visions of chaps. 15-16, repeatedly come out of the heavenly sanctuary (nao/$), now a “great voice” is heard (also in verse 17). Since no other Messenger is mentioned, presumably it is God Himself now who speaks, giving the command for the Judgment to begin. In terms of the action that is involved, “pouring out”, this continues the wine motif, confirmed by the use again of the noun qumo/$ (“impulse”) associating the wine-cup/bowl with the anger of God and His desire to punish wickedness. It is this divine anger that is “poured out” upon humankind in the Judgment; for more on the traditional nature of this idiom, cf. its use in the Prophets (Psalm 69:24; Jer 7:20; 10:25; Ezek 7:8; Zeph 3:8; Koester, p. 646), in addition to Joel 3:13ff and the previously cited wine references (note on 14:9-13).

Verse 2: First Vision

“And the first (Messenger) went from (there) and poured out his offering-dish onto the earth—and there came to be a bad and evil wound (left) upon (all) the men holding the engraved (mark) of the wild animal and kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] its image.” (v. 2)

As in the vision of 14:9ff, the first bowl-vision (and first “plague”) is directed at all people who worship the Sea-creature (chap. 13) and who receive its engraved ‘mark’ (xa/ragma) indicating that they belong to it. The punishment matches the sin—they receive a painful ‘mark’ (e%lko$) on their body. The noun e%lko$ indicates a wound or cut, possibly related to the verb e%lkw, signifying a pulling or tearing of the skin, etc. It can refer specifically to a ‘wound’ that is the result of disease or illness—a festering sore, ulcer, abcess, etc. While this alludes to the plague in Exodus 9:8-12 (e%lko$ being used in the LXX, v. 9), it is the parallel with the “mark” of the Sea-creature that is especially being emphasized.

Verses 3-7: Second and Third Visions

“And the second (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the sea—and it came to be blood, (as of) a dead (person), and every soul of life [i.e. living soul] died off, (all) the (thing)s in the sea. And the third (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the rivers and the fountains of waters—and it (also) came to be blood (there). And I heard the Messenger of the waters saying: ‘Just are you, the (One) being and the (One who) was, the right/pure (One), that you judged these (thing)s, (in) that [i.e. because] they poured out the blood of holy (one)s and foretellers [i.e. prophets]—and (now) you have given them blood to drink, (for) they are brought (into the balance)!’ And I heard the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] saying (in return): ‘Yes, Lord God the All-mighty, true and just are your judgments!'” (vv. 3-7)

Even as human beings were given a painful wound for their worship of the Sea-creature, so the very Sea itself is given a similar ‘wound’ and turned into blood—the thick, congealed blood of a “dead person”. As a result, all living beings in the sea die off. While this vision refers to a plague upon the natural world (echoing the plague on the Nile, etc, in Exodus 7:14-21), it is clear that the symbolism properly applies to the wickedness of the human government of the world—in other words, the earth as the domain of the Sea-creature. I would interpret the two visions here as follows:

    • Vision 2: The Sea—the dark, chaotic realm of evil, out of which the Sea-creature rises
    • Vision 3: The rivers and fountains = the presence of the Sea (waters) on/in the Earth, i.e. the domain of the Earth-creature, who acts on behalf of the Sea-creature

The reference to the “Messenger of the waters” is parallel to the Messenger controlling the fire in 14:18—both reflect the ancient cosmological idea that the natural features and phenomena of the world are controlled by divine/heavenly beings, and, indeed, the visions of Revelation make considerable use of this idea within the drama of the narrative. However, the message of this Angel refers not to the “waters” as a natural feature, but as a symbolic manifestation of the evil power of the “Sea” in its functioning power on earth. According to the visionary logic of the scenes in chapter 13, this refers to the domain of the Earth-creature who works on behalf of the Sea-creature. It is said that “they” poured out the blood of holy ones and prophets, meaning that they persecuted and killed the people of God—both the earlier ones of Israel, and, subsequently, believers in Christ (cf. Matt 23:31, 37 par). The end-time persecution in the period of distress is primarily in view (7:14; chaps. 12-13). Who are “they”? The worldly rulers and powers—specifically the Roman imperial government and its local/regional vassals, though it could just as well apply to any wicked earthly government throughout history. As in the first vision, the punishment here fits the sin: they poured out blood, and now blood has been poured out for them to drink. This is also expressed by the adjective a&cio$, rather difficult to render in English; I have tried to preserve the fundamental meaning of the idiom, that of something brought into balance, i.e. weighed out so that its value and worth is determined. Here it is the scales of justice that are in view, the wickedness of human beings weighed out, balanced by a proper and proportionate punishment.

In response to the Angel’s message, the altar in heaven speaks. Again I translate the word qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, even though the altar in the book of Revelation is generally understood to be the altar of incense (not animal sacrifice) that resides in the Temple sanctuary. However, in the fifth seal-vision (6:9ff), the idea of sacrifice is implied by the presence underneath the altar of the souls (of believers) who have been slain, and the emphasis here is also on believers being put to death by the wicked. Those souls in the seal-vision speak out in a loud voice, and the response from the altar here likely is meant to echo the earlier scene.

Verses 8-9: Fourth Vision

“And the fourth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the sun—and it was given to it to burn the men (on earth) in fire. And the men were burned (with) a great burning, and (yet) they insulted the name of God, the (One) holding e)cousi/a [i.e. power/authority] over these (thing)s that strike (them), and they did not change (their) mind to give Him honor.” (vv. 8-9)

To the realms of Earth (i.e. the inhabited world of humankind) and Sea (the dark, turbulent world of evil) is now added that of the Sun. Again, on the surface this refers to a feature of the natural world; however, in the visionary logic of the narrative, here it more properly signifies the heavenly realm of light, righteousness, etc. In particular, it is a powerful image for the fire of God’s holy Judgment—i.e., the traditional motif of fire from heaven. This aspect of the Judgment has been expressed a number of ways (fire from the altar of incense, etc); now it relates to the natural heat human beings feel on earth from the sun—the sun itself serves as a vehicle for God’s fiery Judgment. The response of the afflicted population, as described here, could be taken to imply that humankind still had the opportunity to repent and turn to God, even after the Judgment had begun. In this respect the vision resembles the fifth and sixth of the earlier trumpet-cycle (chap. 9, note esp. verses 20-21).

Verses 10-11: Fifth Vision

“And the fifth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the ruling-seat of the wild animal—and its kingdom came to be darkened, and they squeezed their tongues out of the labor (they felt), and (still) they insulted the God of heaven (from) out of their labors and out of their wounds, (but) they did not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] out of their works!” (vv. 10-11)

As noted above, these visions specifically target the domain of the Sea-creature, but here the point is made explicit, the plague being poured out directly on the ruling-seat (qro/no$, throne) of the creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on). Back in 2:13, the city of Pergamum was said to be the place “where the ruling-seat of the Satan is”, due to its importance as a provincial center, the prominence of the imperial cult in the city, and, most importantly, because the believer Antipas was put to death there. All of these factors also serve to inform the symbolic domain of the Sea-creature (chap. 13), even though that domain cannot be limited to any specific geographical location. The Roman Empire and the Imperial cult is the most immediate point of reference for the symbolism, but, as we will see in the sixth and seventh visions, the imagery is considerably broader than the historic Roman rule of the first centuries.

The darkening that comes upon the creature’s kingdom is another direct allusion to the Exodus traditions and the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 10:21-29). Darkness was also a traditional image associated with the judgment to come upon nations and people on the “Day of YHWH” (Joel 2:10; Amos 5:18; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7-9) and was a common motif signifying (end-time) judgment (Mark 13:34 par; 15:33 par; Rev 6:12); moreover, any unusual darkness could be seen as an omen portending a coming disaster (cf. Koester, pp. 450, 649). Verse 10b-11 refers to the people in the Sea-creature’s kingdom, i.e. the human beings under its control, who belong to it and venerate the image, etc. It is not immediately clear what about the darkness causes the reaction of “squeezing” (or “chewing”) the tongue; most likely, it marks the cumulation of the experience of hardship and suffering in the midst of the Judgment. The noun po/no$ is used, which fundamentally means “labor, work, toil”, here more properly the suffering and pain that comes from hard labor. This hardship, along with the painful “mark” (e%lko$) on their bodies (cf. above), prompts humankind again to insult God (vb blasfhme/w). It would seem that people still have the opportunity to repent, but apparently none do. There is a bit of wordplay here involving the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) and the plural nouns po/noi (“labors”) and e&rga (“works”):

    • People insult God “out of” their labors (po/noi), i.e. their hardship and suffering
    • They do not repent “out of” their works (e&rga), i.e. their wicked behavior

The final two visions in the cycle (6 and 7) bring the scene of the great Judgment to a close, depicting the same judgment of the nations with a different set of symbols. We will explore these in the next daily note.

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September 30: Revelation 7:9-17

Revelation 7:9-17

Rev 7:9-10

Verse 9 begins with words similar to the opening of verse 1, indicating that these are two halves of a single visionary scene:

With [i.e. after] these (thing)s, I saw, and see! a throng (of) many (people), which no one is able to number, out of every nation—and (all) offshoots [i.e. tribes] and peoples and tongues—having taken (their) stand in the sight of the ruling-seat and in the sight of the Lamb, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress and (with) palm branches in their hands, and they cried (out) with a great voice, saying: ‘The salvation (is) to our God, the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and to the Lamb!'” (vv. 9-10)

The image of believers—those who are “able to stand” in the great Judgment (6:17)—begins with those sealed out of the twelve tribes of Israel (vv. 4-8, cf. the previous note), and concludes with a throng of people out of every nation, language, and ethnic group, etc. The relationship between these two will be discussed further below. First it is necessary to examine how this second “group” of believers is described here in vv. 9ff.

    • “cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress”—this corresponds with the traditional description of heavenly/angelic beings (4:4; 19:14), as well as the heavenly reward/status promised to believers in 3:4-5, 18.
    • “(with) palm-branches in their hands”—the palm branch symbolized victory in Greco-Roman tradition (Virgil Aeneid 5:112; Livy Roman History 10.47.3; Plutarch Moralia 723-4; Pliny Natural History 17.244; Caesar Civil War 3.105, etc; cf. Koester, p. 420), and was recognized by Jews as well (1 Macc 13:37, 51; 2 Macc 10:7; 14:4; Philo On the Unchangableness of God §137). In John’s version of the Triumphal Entry scene, palm branches are used (Jn 12:13), presumably to greet Jesus as the (conquering) Messiah.
    • The song they sing is similar to that of the heavenly beings in chaps. 4-5, and reflects the same dual emphasis of the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) standing alongside God on His throne. It also indicates the same position of homage and adoration, in which the salvation believers have experienced is “given back” to God (and Christ), recognizing Him as its source. Ascribing salvation to God (that is, as coming from Him, or belonging to Him) is part of the Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:18; 1 Sam 2:1; Psalm 3:8; 27:1; 38:22, etc).
Rev 7:11-12

The song by the believers effectively joins that of the heavenly throng (chaps. 4-5), and the heavenly beings around the throne of God answer in return, with a new refrain. On the language used here, cf. 4:9-10f; 5:9-14; in particular, the wording of the song in v. 12 echoes 4:11 and 5:12-13. Significantly, seven words are strung together, symbolizing the praise that is worthy of Deity.

Rev 7:13-14

The identity of the great throng clothed in white (vv. 9-10) is addressed here, by way of a leading question from one of the heavenly “Elders”. Such an exchange reflects similar episodes in Old Testament and Apocalyptic tradition—cf. Ezek 37:3; 40:3-4; Zech 1:8; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3-4ff, etc; Koester, p. 420.

Elder: “These the (one)s cast about [i.e. clothed] with white dress—who are they and (from) where did they come?”
John: “My lord, you have seen [i.e. you know].” (cf. Ezek 37:3)
Elder: “These are the (one)s coming out of the great distress/oppression [qli/yi$], and they washed their dress and made the (garment)s white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Here the emphasis is on their white garments. The word stolh/ is often translated “robe”, but fundamentally it refers to any sort of (special) clothing or dress, used to indicate position, honor, etc. The white garments reflect the dress of heavenly/divine beings (cf. above), which believers receive as a sign of honor and victory (i.e. heavenly reward). Now, however, the color is given a particular significance, which is two-fold:

    • they have come out of “the great distress/oppression”
    • they have washed (i.e. rinsed under flowing water) their garments “in the blood of the Lamb”

Previously, the blood of the Lamb was tied to sacrifice—i.e. Jesus’ death in terms of (a) Passover, (b) the offering at the establishment of the covenant, and (c) a sin/guilt offering. Only the last of these is really in view here, with the distinctive idea of cleansing (i.e. from sin). Obviously, blood is antithetical or paradoxical as a symbol for cleansing, but it may relate to concepts of atonement (wiping out/off) through blood in ancient religious traditions—cf. Gen 9:6, etc. There was a sacred quality associated with blood, it could be used in religious ritual to consecrate people or objects (Exod 24:6, 8; 29:12ff; Levit 8, etc). The connection with washing is perhaps drawn more directly from Gen 49:11, as a Messianic prophecy (cf. Rev 5:5). Since these believers have come out of the time of great distress, which includes persecution and killing of believers (6:9-11), it is possible that here blood specifically refers to believers who are put to death for their faith. While this allusion is likely, the reference here should not be limited to that interpretation. According to basic early Christian teaching, all believers are cleansed through Jesus’ blood (Rom 3:25; 5:9; 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:13-14ff; 10:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5, etc). Moreover, the obvious parallel with baptism likewise would apply to believers generally.

Some comment is required regarding the expression “the great distress/oppression” (h( qli/yi$ h( mega/lh). Under the now-traditional designation “Great Tribulation”, this expression has very much taken on a life of its own, especially among Dispensationalist commentators. We must, however, be careful not to wrench it too quickly out of its context here, within the vision-cycle of the seven seals. Limiting it this way, at least for the moment, it must refer generally to the visions described for the first six seals, which we may summarize (again) as:

    • Seals 1-4, the four horses and riders—a period of intense warfare among the nations, resulting in disruption of the social order, culminating in hunger, disease and death.
    • Seal 5—persecution of believers, resulting in many being put to death
    • Seal 6—cosmic disruption of the natural order, marking the appearance of God to bring Judgment

As I noted previously, this sequence generally parallels that of Jesus’ sayings in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:7-8, 9-13, 24-25 par). There, too, it is described in terms of great distress and suffering (the word qli/yi$ being used in vv. 19, 24). Jesus also ties this period to the choosing/election of believers (vv. 19-20, 27), as here in Rev 7:4-9ff, though without the specific image of sealing. It is customary for many Christians today to view this period (the “Great Tribulation”) as a time which has not yet come—i.e. many centuries after the author’s time. While this is understandable, it is hard to find support for such an interpretation, and certainly not based on what we have seen thus far through the first six chapters of the book, where the language of imminence is used throughout (Rev 1:1, 3, 7, 19; 2:5, 16; 3:3, 10-11, 20). Indeed, 3:10 refers to “the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole inhabited (world)”. There is little, if any, indication that this “hour of testing” is anything other that the time of “great distress” mentioned in 7:14. The entire issue of imminent eschatology in the New Testament will be addressed in a special article, as part of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”

Rev 7:15-17

This answer by the Elder suddenly turns into a kind of poem, or hymn, which echoes that of v. 12 (also in chaps. 4-5), and serves as a fitting conclusion to the vision:

“Through this they are in the sight of the ruling-seat of God and do service for Him day and night in His shrine, and the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat will stretch (out His) tent upon them. They will not yet hunger (any more), and will not yet thirst (any more), and (certainly) the sun shall not fall upon them, and not (either) any burning (heat), (in) that [i.e. because] the Lamb (standing) up in the middle of the ruling-seat will herd them and will lead the way for them upon fountains of waters of life, and God will wipe out every tear out of their eyes.”

The language of verse 15 brings out two motifs drawn from Israelite religious tradition:

    • Believers serving as priests (cf. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6), day and night, in the sanctuary—both of the Temple, and, more particularly, of the older Tent-shrine (Tabernacle)
    • The Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) indicating God’s presence, and the protection which that brings

Verses 16-17 also allude to a number of key passages in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8. The motif of the Lamb serving as a shepherd for the people, is primarily Messianic, by way of Ezek 34:23-24, etc. Both the shepherd-image and the idea of God’s sanctuary/dwelling among his people, are combined in Ezek 37:24-28. The exalted Jesus (the Lamb) is recognized as the Messiah, but also, through his divine status/position at the right hand of God, he fulfills the same life-giving and protecting role as God Himself. Jesus identifies himself similarly as a shepherd at various points in the Gospel tradition (Mark 14:27 par; John 10:1-18; cf. also Matt 2:6; 10:6; 15:24; Mark 6:34 par; Luke 15:3ff; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Heb 13:20).

Concluding note on the two “groups” in vv. 4-17

The distinction in this passage—believers from the people of Israel and those from all the nations—would seem to reflect two themes in early Christian eschatology taken over from Jewish tradition, and which ultimately stem from the Old Testament Prophets (esp. the book of Isaiah):

    1. The Restoration of Israel. At the end time, the twelve tribes will be regathered from their dispersal among the nations, forming a new Israel, centered back at Judah/Jerusalem. Among the many passages note: Isa 11:12; 43:5-6; 49:5-6; Jer 29:14; 31:8-10; Ezek 11:17; 34:13; 36:24; 47-48; Zech 10:8-10; Sirach 36:11; 48:10; Tobit 13:5; 2 Macc 2:18; Jubilees 1:15-17; Psalms of Solomon 11; 17:28-31. Related to this theme is the idea that the restoration will involve a faithful remnant, or portion of the people—Amos 3:12; Zeph 3:11-13; Mic 2:12; Isa 10:19-22; 11:11ff; Jer 23:3, etc. Early Christians seem to have shared this latter idea with the Qumran Community—i.e., they represented the faithful remnant of Israel (Rom 9:27-29; 11:5ff).
    2. The Inclusion of the Gentiles. Along with the restoration of Israel, at the end time the nations (i.e. Gentiles) also would come to Jerusalem and be included among the people of God. This belief was fundamental to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, but was reflected already in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition—e.g., Mic 4:1-5 (par Isa 2:2-4); Isa 49:5-6; 56:3-8; 60:3-7ff; 66:18-24; Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Tobit 13:11; 14:6f.

As I noted above, it is possible that here the book of Revelation expresses and eschatological view similar to that of Paul in Rom 9-11, and that the portion sealed from the tribes of Israel, with its symbolic number of completeness (12 x 1000), is more or less equivalent to Paul’s statement regarding “all Israel” (Rom 11:26). As Paul describes this end-time conversion of Israelites (vv. 25-27), it suggests a sudden and miraculous event, which could be comparably expressed through God’s sealing of the 144,000 in Rev 7:4-8. Along with this large number of Jewish believers, there is an even larger number of believers from among the nations; Paul doubtless envisioned this as well (10:18; 11:11ff, 25). Both “groups” together—Jews and Gentiles as believers in Christ—make up the true, complete people of God.