After 1260 days of ministry, the “beast that comes from the bottomless pit” will attack and kill the two witnesses. This is the first time Revelation refers to the beast, and it is a bit surprising since the beast is not fully explained until chapter 13. Who is this beast ascending from the bottomless pit?
John develops an important image from Daniel describing a progression of human kingdoms as beasts rising from the chaos of the sea. In Daniel 7:3 described four beasts rising from the sea and Revelation 13:1 the beast rises from the sea. Both the fourth beast in Daniel 7:21 and the first beast in Revelation 13 “make war on the saints.” Revelation 13 describes two beasts, one form the sea and one from the earth.
Daniel 7:3 four great beasts rise from the sea, καὶ τέσσαρα θηρία μεγάλα ἀνέβαινον ἐκ τῆς θαλάσσης.
Revelation 11:7 the beast rises from the bottomless pit, τὸ θηρίον τὸ ἀναβαῖνον ἐκ τῆς ἀβύσσου.
Revelation 13:1 John sees a beast (no definite article) rising from the sea, ἐκ τῆς θαλάσσης θηρίον ἀναβαῖνον.
Daniel 7:21 The fourth beast “made war against the saints and overpowered them,” ἐποίει πόλεμον μετὰ τῶν ἁγίων καὶ ἴσχυσεν πρὸς αὐτούς
Revelation 11:7 the beast “will make war against them (the two witnesses) and he will conquer them,” ποιήσει μετʼ αὐτῶν πόλεμον καὶ νικήσει αὐτοὺς
Revelation 13:7 Authority was given to the beast “to make war against the saints and conquer them,” ποιῆσαι πόλεμον μετὰ τῶν ἁγίων καὶ νικῆσαι αὐτούς
Daniel 7 describes an ultimate evil empire which persecutes God’s people and is replaced by the kingdom of God ruled by the Son of Man. For Daniel, this coming kingdom was a future event, one that was still future from the perspective of John. The empire is different (it was the Seleucids, now it is Rome). But the hope for the glorious coming of the Son of Man to rescue God’s people from their suffering and establish a kingdom of peace and justice is the same. The attack on the two witnesses parallels the beginning of the beast’s war against the saints, as will be described in chapter 13. Although the persecution is great, there is a remnant, the church is “completely annihilated but driven underground” (Beale, 590).
What is remarkable is the beast is successful. It kills the two witnesses and conquers the saints. John is clear God’s people will suffer greatly under this powerful empire. This should not be unexpected, many suffered and died at the hand of the Assyria, Babylonian, Seleucid and Roman empires. An ultimate evil empire will therefore cause ultimate suffering and death of God’s people.
The bodies are not buried. They are left in the streets for three and a half days. Typically Jews buried the dead as quickly as possible since dead bodies are unclean.
The great city in verse 8 must be Jerusalem since it is where Jesus was crucified. However, adding that Jerusalem is “figuratively called Egypt and Sodom” is an odd description. In fact, “figuratively” (NIV) or symbolically (ESV) might be better understood as “prophetically” (NRSV) since the adverb is πνευματικῶς, “being consistent with transcendent influence… more is involved here than mere allegory or figurative usage” (BDAG).
This is a reference to God’s extreme judgment on Sodom and Egypt (rather than their wickedness). Sodom is the ultimate wicked city (Jer 23:14, Ezek 16:46), but also the quintessential judgment of God. Isaiah 1:9 compares a devastated Jerusalem to Sodom; Amos 4:11 compares God’s judgment on some cities as “like Sodom.” It is true Egypt is associated with idolatry and slavery (Isa 19:1; Ezek 29:7), God’s judgment on Egypt in the plagues is a prototype for the judgments in Revelation 8-9. Aune points out prophets often go to Jerusalem to be rejected and killed (2:621).
When the beast kills the two witnesses, the people of the world will gloat over their deaths. In any ancient or modern culture, leaving a body unburied is a deep insult which defiles the place where the body lays. It is possible this is an allusion to Psalm 79:1-3, a lament over the fall of Jerusalem. In that psalm, Jerusalem is in ruins, the temple is defiled by bodies left unburied to be eaten by birds and animals, and blood is poured out over the city. To further dishonor the two witnesses, people of the whole world rejoice and exchange gifts. When Nineveh fell, people clapped their hands and rejoiced (Nahum 3:19). As the news the two witnesses are dead spreads, spontaneous celebrations break out all over the world.
After three and a half days the witnesses will be resurrected and called up to heaven by a great voice (cf., Rev 4:1). Just as the bodies had laid in public view for a time, the resurrection of the two witnesses is in the full view of all the world. Coming to one’s feet is associated with resurrection (2 Kings 13:21, Ezek 37:10). The reaction this resurrection is that a great fear falls upon all who see it. Great fear falls on those who witness God’s judgment on Egypt (Exod 15:16)
For those who are being persecuted by the beast, this resurrection and ascension is a great comfort, providing a hope of resurrection even if they must suffer greatly and die for their testimony.