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The woman in Revelation 17 is riding a “scarlet beast.” We might have expected to see the beast himself, or the king who represents the beast.  Rather than the king, we see a prostitute riding a scarlet beast.  It is possible the image of a beast is of a throne, and the woman is the king. This beast is not unlike the beast from chapter 13 or the fourth beast of Daniel 7, other than the color scarlet. Nothing much can be made of this color, although it is similar in color to that of the red dragon who gave his authority to the beast in chapter 13.

The woman is described as a prostitute. Prostitutes are common images in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness, for example, Jerusalem Isaiah 1:21, Tyre in Isaiah 23:16-17 and Nineveh in Nahum 3:4. Israel herself is compared to a prostitute in Jer 3:6-10; Ezek 16:15-22; 23:49; Hos 4:12-13; 5:3.

Although there are some commentators who made the woman represent Israel, but the vast majority of writers associate the woman with Rome, especially given the evidence below. The “final” empire as Rome is consistent with Daniel 2 and 7, and with the rest of Revelation.  It is Rome which is demanding worship in chapters 2-3, and it is Rome which persecutes the saints.

The various descriptions of the woman add to the vividness of the image:

  • She was dressed in purple and scarlet.  The word for the color purple here covers a range of colors from deep purple to black.  While the color is normally associated with royalty and prestige, the writer Porphyry associated the color purple with carnality (which is interested because his name is derived from the word, Aune 3:935).
  • She was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls.  The stereotypical prostitute is gaudy and over-dressed with jewelry and other accessories.
  • She held a golden cup in her hand. This gold cup is likely an allusion to Jeremiah 51:7, although the verse there refers to Babylon.  This is an example of the unusual blending of Roman and Babylonian elements in the chapter.  The cup is filled with “abominations and impurities.”  The word abomination is almost always associated with idols or meat sacrificed to idols (Jer 51:7).
  • On the head of this woman is written several names. There is a problem of how to read the verse with respect to punctuation.  Is this “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery:” or “on her head was written a name: MYSTERY”?  In verse seven, the angel interprets the “mystery” of the woman, so it is likely here that the name of the woman begins with BABYLON rather than mystery. Why is the head of the beast’s empire portrayed as a female prostitute?  She is not just a whore, she is the mother of all whores.
  • The prostitute is drunk on the blood of the saints. That the woman is a prostitute is bad enough, but she is a drunk prostitute. Descriptions of prostitutes in the Greco-Roman literature usually indicate they drink very little “for professional reasons” (Aune 3:927.)  There really is not more degrading way of describing a woman than as a drunk whore.  To be “drunk on blood” is am image of extreme violence (see Ezek 39:18-19; Isa 49:26)

It is possible this description is based on coins minted by Vespasian in A.D. 71. These coins depict the goddess Tiber seated on seven hills, as described in this vision.   The image of the goddess is common both before and after Vespasian, but not the image of a goddess seated on seven hills. On the reverse, the river goddess Tiber reclines on seven hills, holding a sword indicating the military might of Rome. S and C stand for senatus consultum – a resolution of the senate. In the background are a she-wolf and the twins Romulus and Remus.

 

A coin minted in A.D. 71 featuring Vespasian and (Cohen, Description 1:398 [no. 404]) From Aune Revelation, 3:920

The coins of Rome obviously do not depict Rome as a prostitute.  But there may bit a subtle word play in this description:  “The Latin term lupa, ‘she-wolf,’ had the connotation ‘prostitute’ and might have contributed to a subversive joke that was transferred to Roma as the female personification of Rome” (Aune 3:929).

The angel gives an invitation to the reader to “figure out” what the beast represents in verses 9-14 “this calls for wisdom.” The city of Rome was well known in antiquity as the city on seven hills, although it is difficult to identify which are the seven hills on which Rome was founded.  In the various attempts to make the beast Jerusalem, the seven hills becomes a problem.

The angelic guide identifies the ten horns as seven kings who are coming.  There are at least three was to “count” the Roman emperors of the first century. There are at least three approaches to handling this problem.

The historical approach.  This approach attempts to make sense of the series of kings in Roman history.  One must determine the start of the series, and decide which of the kings “count.”  For example, there are three Caesars in A.D. 69, before Vespasian takes the throne.  Do they count as three separate kings, or as a single king, or not at all?

The symbolic approach.  This approach argues John has no specific kings in mind, but rather he means to use the number seven as a complete number of kings. This is consistent with Revelation’s use of the number 7, and Roman history as well, which held the first period of their history was ruled by seven kings, when in fact there were likely many more than this.

A combination of the historical and symbolic approaches.  This attempts to use the historical sequence of kings, but declines to identify the first 5.  It is the sixth king that is important, and is well known to the readers (either Nero or Domitian, depending on one’s view of the date of the book.)  The hope, then, is that this evil sixth king will only reign for a short time.

Once again, Revelation leaves us with more questions than answers. If this image does refer to Rome, then Revelation 18-19 describes fall of Rome. Since Revelation 19:11-21 refers to the return of Jesus as the Messiah, when does Rome fall? Certainly not in John’s time, and it is unclear this could refer to any historical event in history. A solution may be to understand the prophecy of the fall of Rome as already beginning in the first century, but not yet consummated until the Second Coming.

 

 

The first two verses of Revelation 12 seem unrelated to the rest of the chapter, but they serve as a transition between chapter 10 and 11. The end of chapter 10 has John eating a scroll that represents the word of the Lord, it is sweet but turns bitter in his mouth, an allusion to the call of Ezekiel (Ezek 1-3).

The end of book of Ezekiel is similar to Revelation 11:1-2 as well. In Ezekiel 40 the prophet is taken to a high mountain, from which he can observe events in Jerusalem. He is met by an angel (a man with the appearance of bronze) with a measuring rod in his hands. The following chapters describe Ezekiel measuring the city and the temple area. After the measuring is complete, the glory of the Lord returns to the temple.

It cannot be coincidental that both of these interlude events are related to Ezekiel, the first from the beginning of his ministry and the second at the conclusion. Ezekiel’s ministry was to describe the departure of the glory of the Lord from the temple at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B. C. and its return at the time of the establishment of the kingdom. Perhaps the patterning of these two sections after Ezekiel is to highlight the return of the glory of the Lord at the end of Revelation.

But what does the act of measuring the Temple mean? There are parallels in the Old Testament implying both preservation (Zechariah 2:1-5) and destruction (Amos 7:7-9). In the context of Revelation 11:1-2, it appears the image describes preservation, since the outer court is not measured and is overrun by the Gentiles for 42 months. The Temple, the holy place, and the worshipers are all measured. It might sound odd to measure the worshipers, but the word (μετρέω) can mean measure, count, or mete out. David Aune suggests this is an example of the figure of speech known as zeugma, one verb with two direct objects, only one of which fits the verb.

Prior to A.D. 70, many Jews believed the temple area of Jerusalem would never fall to an enemy. During the Jewish War, zealots retreated into the Temple thinking they would be preserved because they were in the temple. Instead, 6000 died when the Romans destroyed the temple. Second Baruch 6:3-9 records a legend that an angel took all of the temple objects just before the fall of the city and buried them until the end times.

Second Baruch 6:3-9 And behold, suddenly a strong spirit lifted me and carried me above the wall of Jerusalem. 4 And I saw, and behold, there were standing four angels at the four corners of the city, each of them with a burning torch in his hands. 5 And another angel came down from heaven and said to them, “Hold your torches and do not light them before I say it to you. 6 Because I was sent first to speak a word to the earth and then to deposit in it what the Lord, the Most High, has commanded me.” 7And I saw that he descended in the Holy of Holies and that he took from there the veil, the holy ephod, the mercy seat, the two tables, the holy raiment of the priests, the altar of incense, the forty-eight precious stones with which the priests were clothed, and all the holy vessels of the tabernacle. 8And he said to the earth with a loud voice: Earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the mighty God, and receive the things which I commit to you, and guard them until the last times, so that you may restore them when you are ordered, so that strangers may not get possession of them. 9For the time has arrived when Jerusalem will also be delivered up for a time, until the moment that it will be said that it will be restored forever. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up. (OTP 1:622–623)

Why 42 months? This is the thrice repeated number that is associated with the time of the tribulation. 42 months of 30 days each = 1260 days, and 42 months are exactly 3 and a half years (a time, times and half a time.) That the Gentiles are allowed to overrun the outer court for 42 months is an indication Jerusalem will not be a city of peace.

 

The first trumpet judgment is similar to Exodus 9:13-25, hail and fire fell upon the Egyptians. Joel 2:31 indicates that in the time of the end the moon and sun will be turned to blood. The Jews had a tradition that at the time of the crossing of the Red Sea the angels hurled “arrows, great hailstones, fire, and brimstone” one the Egyptians (Aune, 2:519 cites Mek. de-Rabbi Ishmael, Beshallah 7). Fire and blood from heaven was included in Roman lists of “evil signs” (Cicero De div. 1.43.98; 2.27.58; Pliny Hist. Nat. 2.57.147).

The image of a great red storm sweeping across the earth destroying plants and trees may allude to Zechariah 13:8-9. In that apocalyptic text, only one-third of the land survives a “refining fire.” Why a third? This may be loosely based on Ezekiel 5:2, 12. Jerusalem will be destroyed one-third by fire, one-third by sword.

When the Second Trumpet is sounded, a huge mountain is thrown into the sea (8:8-9). The first judgement burned one third of the land, this judgement damages one third of the seas.  Sea life and shipping are all one third destroyed. “Something like a huge mountain” in the sea is reminiscent of a volcanic island being formed.  Mount Vesuvius erupted within John’s lifetime and destroyed Pompeii, many of the Jews believed that this was a judgement of God in the Romans for having destroyed Jerusalem. Volcanic debris blocked the Bay of Naples making it impossible to land boats (Tacitus Annals 4.67; Ant. 20.144).  The only eyewitness account is from Pliny the Younger (Ep. 6.16, 20). Pliny reports the sea level dropped and sea creatures were stranded on dry land.

Pliny, Epistles, 6.20 For although the ground was perfectly level, the vehicles which we had ordered to be brought with us began to sway to and fro, and though they were wedged with stones, we could not keep them still in their places. Moreover, we saw the sea drawn back upon itself, and, as it were, repelled by the quaking of the earth. The shore certainly was greatly widened, and many marine creatures were stranded on the dry sands. On the other side, the black, fearsome cloud of fiery vapour burst into long, twisting, zigzag flames and gaped asunder, the flames resembling lightning flashes, only they were of greater size.

The imagery is common in apocalyptic, see for example:

Sib. Or. 4.130-34  But when a firebrand, turned away from a cleft in the earth, in the land of Italy, reaches to broad heaven, it will burn many cities and destroy men. Much smoking ashes will fill the great sky, and showers will fall from heaven like red earth.

But the Revelation likely alludes to the first plague on Egypt in Exodus 7:14-23. In the original plague, all the water turned to blood, even water stored in jars. In addition, all the fish in the water died, as in the plague in Revelation.

When the third trumpet is sounded Wormwood falls into the fresh water (8:10-11). The third trumpet resembles the plague of the freshwater in Exodus 7:20, except that there the waters turned to blood. A great star, like a torch falls from the sky effecting freshwater.  Unlike western folklore, shooting stars were considered bad luck, thus this star would have struck the readers as a bad sign (Aune 2:520, citing  Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.36; 5.23, a falling star means the death of a person) If a falling star is bad, a comet is the worst cosmic sign possible.  “…comets were considered prodigies that signaled the imminence of death and disaster (Manilius Astron. 1.892-926).

The star was named Wormwood (ὁ Ἄψινθος, ho Apsinthos). Wormwood is an herb which is not poisonous but has a very bitter taste that would render water undrinkable. Wormwood is mentioned in Jeremiah 8:14, 9:15, 23:15, as a symbol of God’s punishment of the people. How could a single disaster poison freshwater?  Although some writers try to make this a literal meteor or comet, it is a plague like the Egyptian plagues. God is destroying the water supply.

When the fourth trumpet sounds, fire mixed with blood falls from the sky (Rev 8:12). This trumpet effects the sun, moon, and stars, reducing their light by one third.  Darkness is a common symbol of terror and the end of the world, the reduction of light will increase terror, and make food production less effective. This darkness is unnatural, “not the way it is supposed to be”, and generally associated with “covenantal judgment” in the Old Testament (Beale, Revelation, 483). Two examples from the Old Testament:

Amos 5:18  Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!  Why do you long for the day of the LORD?  That day will be darkness, not light.

Isaiah 13:10  The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light.  The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. (Cf Mark 13:24)

What is it that reduces the light?  It is possible that this is the combined effect of all the fire that has been started in the first three trumpets, all of the smoke and pollution have created a cloud cover that reduces light by one third. But it is more consistent with Revelation to see this as another allusion to Exodus 10:21-29, the ninth plague on the Egyptians.

In a previous post I suggested the 144,000 were in many ways similar to the send of the twelve in Matthew 10. Jesus sent his witnesses to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and in order to proclaim the presence of the messiah and to gather them into his messianic community. The plagues had a similar function in Exodus. For the children of Abraham, the plagues proved their God was defeating the gods of Egypt in order to rescue his people. As he has done before, God is calling his people out of the nations in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.

Miles DavisThere are a remarkable number of parallels between this series of judgments and the ten plagues in Exodus.  For example, trumpets are associated with the theophany at Sinai (Exod 19:13-19; 20:18).  The first trumpet judgment is similar to Exodus 9:13-25, hail and fire fell upon the Egyptians.  The third trumpet resembles the plague of the freshwater in Exodus 7:20, except that there the waters turned to blood. The locust in Rev 9:3 is an apocalyptic version of the eighth plague (Exod 10:12-20).

Richard Patterson traced Exodus Motif in the Prophets, showing that the Exodus was a significant source of imagery for the rest of the Old Testament. The reason for this is the common “Divine Warrior” and “Divine Redeemer” themes in the Prophets. In the Exodus events, God fought for this people in order to redeem them out of their slavery. The prophets pick up those twin themes and apply them to their current situation. Israel has persisted in their unbelief and is once again under oppression (the Exile). God will once again fight for them and redeem them from the nations in a New Exodus.

While Patterson’s article does not continue to follow his argument into the Second Temple Period, the New Exodus theme is present in this literature. But plague imagery is not as common in Jewish sources as we might have guessed. In his detailed survey of the imagery of the Exodus in later Jewish writings, David Aune only finds the plagues in an eschatological sense in the Apocalypse of Abraham. There are ten plagues, although they do not track with the original ten plagues or the seven trumpets from Revelation.

Apoc. Abr. 30:3-8  And he said to me, “I will explain to you the things you desired in your heart, for you have sought to know the ten plagues which I prepared against the heathen, and I prepared them beforehand in the passing of the twelve hours on earth. Hear what I tell you, it will be thus. The first: sorrow from much need. The second: fiery conflagrations for the cities. The third: destruction by pestilence among the cattle. The fourth: famine of the world, of their generation. The fifth: among the rulers, destruction by earthquake and the sword. The sixth: increase of hail and snow. The seventh: wild beasts will be their grave. The eighth: pestilence and hunger will change their destruction. The ninth: execution by the sword and flight in distress. The tenth: thunder, voices, and destroying earthquakes.” (Rubinkiewicz, OTP 1:704)

Nevertheless, Revelation seems to be re-using imagery from the Ten Plagues.  Since John is standing on the shoulders of the Hebrew Bible. This is not a surprise. But it is important to at least wonder why it is important that the Exodus Events were chosen as the main backdrop for John’s apocalyptic description in Revelation 8-9. The purpose of the original ten plagues was for God to show his power to Israel. The ten plagues were not “evangelistic,” hoping that the Egyptians would see them and somehow “convert” to being Jewish. The plagues prove to the people of God in Egypt that he is a God who acts on their behalf to redeem them out of their slavery. The children of Abraham need to be convinced that the God of their ancestors is active and that he cares for them.

This may also be the function of the judgments in Revelation.  By the time of the eschatological age, Israel will have been in a state of unbelief for a long time. Like the original Exodus, they certainly need a reminded of the righteous character of their God. Revelation is using the language of the Hebrew Bible, how God has worked in the past, to describe how he will work again in the future.

 

Bibliography: Richard D. Patterson, “Wonders in the Heavens and on the Earth: Apocalyptic Imagery in the Old Testament” JETS 43 (2000): 385-403.

 

The tribes of Dan and Ephraim had some significant problems in the history of Israel. While Dan himself does not commit any great sin in Genesis (as do the sons of Leah). The blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49 was not a condemnation, although Jacob describes Dan as a “serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider tumbles backward” (Gen 49:18). In the book of Judges, however, we find that the tribe of Dan was involved in idolatry. Samson was from the tribe of Dan, during his career as judge idolatry does not appear to have ceased. The tribe of Dan migrated north to a better territory. The worshiped a “calf” after the kingdom split (1 Kings 12:25).

But would Dan be omitted because of idolatry? All the tribes were, and any of the northern tribes would have been just as involved as Dan. It is in Judah that idols were established on the temple mount and the priesthood worshiped both Yahweh and Assyrian gods. It is possible that they were the first tribe to become idolatrous, but all tribes were involved at Sinai, the real beginning of idolatry in Israel. It was, however, a Jewish tradition that Dan was the most apostate tribe (Aune 2:462, citing Str-B 3:804-805).

A common explanation for this omission is that the Antichrist would come from the tribe of Dan. As Richard Bauckham points out, for John the Antichrist is imperial Rome is not a Jew from any particular tribe (101). This is a point which must be proven yet, but the observation is enough to make us wonder if the whole tribe is removed from the list because the Antichrist would come from it!

Dan is also missing from the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1-9. This is a more significant observation for our problem in Revelation. Perhaps the tribe of Dan failed to return from captivity and therefore lost its place in the tribes. In many prophetic passages, Ephraim becomes synonymous with the entire northern kingdom, especially in its idolatrous forms. The book of Hosea in particular uses the tribe of Ephraim to describe the apostasy of the whole of the northern kingdom.

So once again Revelation generates questions which may be impossible to answer with certainty. Perhaps the solution is as simple as the need to delete two tribes because Levi and Joseph were included.

The 144,000 are specially appointed witnesses during the great persecution at the end of the age. The witnesses are “sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (7:3; 14:1). In Revelation 15:4-5, these 144,000 witnesses have “not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins” and they “follow Lamb wherever he goes.” The 144,000 “have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits.” There are two passages which may help to

This text may allude to marking those who grieve over idolatry in Jerusalem in Ezekiel 9. In this apocalyptic vision, six men with swords enter Jerusalem to judge those who practice idolatry, and a seventh is appointed to mark those who have not practiced idolatry. The ones who have been marked by God will survive the slaughter of idolaters when Jerusalem falls. The ones who have been marked by God are the remnant of Israel which survives. In Revelation 14, the 144,000 are sealed by God in contrast to those who are sealed with the “mark of the Beast” a few verses before Rev 13:13-18).

It is also likely the description of the 144,000 is modeled on Matthew 10. Jesus sends out his specially trained twelve disciples two-by-two for the purpose of announcing the messiah to the nation of Israel. They are given authority to heal and cast our demons (10:1) and are specifically instructed to avoid Gentiles since they are sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-8). Anyone who welcomes these witnesses welcomes Jesus, and anyone who gives even a cup of water to one of the witnesses has welcomed Jesus (10:40-42). In Luke there are two sets of missionaries. First in Luke 9:1-9 Jesus sends out twelve, a passage parallel to Matthew 10. Second, in Luke 10 he sends seventy or seventy-two missionaries (72×2 = 144, although the number 72 is only found in textual variants, so if may or may not be significant). Much of Luke 10:1-24 is also parallel to Matthew 10.

If these are Jewish witnesses to the coming of the Messiah, then the difficult interpretive problem is how to understand “the tribes of Israel.”  If these are literally Jews (as opposed to Christians who are not ethnically Jewish), then there are a few problems: Many will argue that the twelve tribes did not exist in the first century, and they certainly do not today. Josephus, however, does refer to the 12 tribes in the first century (Ant 11.33), and the Jews did have a hope that in the kingdom the full tribal structure would be restored. A restoration of Israel to Palestine in our future may include some kind of tribal structure, or this passage may signal the beginnings of the revival of the twelve tribes. The millennial kingdom will include the twelve tribe ruling and judging the gentile nations.

The order of the tribes is also troublesome. They are re-arranged to place Judah at the top, likely because the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah (Smith 215). The main problem is that Joseph is included and Dan is omitted. Richard Bauckham, “The List of the Tribes in Revelation 7 Again” JSNT 42 (1991) 99-115; 112, for example, solves the problem by noting that the “list as an attempt to list the tribes in an intelligible order which failed owing to faulty memory.” Joseph was not a tribe, recall from Genesis 49 that his two sons were adopted by Jacob and became tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh).

The list in Revelation 7 does not correspond to any of the lists in the Old Testament, see Genesis 35:22-26; Numbers 1:5-15 and 13:4-14, for example. (In Numbers 13 Joseph is mentioned parenthetically as being represented by Manasseh; Levi is rarely mentioned since it was not allotted land). Nor does the list conform to the birth order of the sons, either literally, or by wives (Leah, Bilah, Zilpah, Rachel). One suggestion is that 7:5c-6 is misplaced, if it is moved after verse 8, then the order is more correct, the sons of the wives in order followed by the wives of the concubines in order.

By way of some sort of conclusion on the list of the tribes in Revelation 7, we might have to let some of the mystery remain and confess we cannot know for sure why the tribes are ordered as they are, nor why Dan is missing. Sometimes it is best to remember Grant Osborne’s advice to apply the “hermeneutics of ignorance” when reading Revelation.

Bibliography: Richard Bauckham, “The List of the Tribes in Revelation 7 Again” JSNT 42 (1991) 99-115; Christopher Smith, “The Tribes of Revelation 7 and the Literary Competence of John the Seer” JETS 38 (1995) 213-18.

God Zapping WorldThe sixth seal contains apocalyptic imagery drawn from the whole canon of the prophets. In fact, the sixth seal seems to be a combination of all the stock imagery found in the Old Testament, Second Temple apocalyptic literature, even Greco-Roman imagery of disaster. This does not necessarily mean John used other apocalypses, however. Just as John drew on the Hebrew Bible for this apocalyptic imagery, so too did other Jewish apocalyptic literature.

The apocalyptic elements in the sixth deal (earthquakes, mountains melting, the sun and moon growing dark, etc.) are “stock apocalyptic images.” Just a few examples: Haggai 2:21-22 the Lord will “shake the heavens and the earth.” In Joel 2:10 the earth and sky trembles and the sun, moon and stars no longer shine. In Isaiah 24:18-23 the earth reels like a drunkard and splits apart. Amos 8:9 describes the day of the Lord as “a day of darkness and gloom.” These examples can be easily multiplied in the Hebrew Bible and are found throughout the apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple Period (2 Apoc. Bar. 27; 4 Ezra 4:52-5:13; 6:20-24). For example:

T. Mos. 10:5-6 The sun will not give light. And in darkness the horns of the moon will flee. Yea, they will be broken in pieces. It will be turned wholly into blood. Yea, even the circles of the stars will be thrown into disarray.

Sib. Or. 8.231–238 A lament will rise from all and gnashing of teeth. The light of the sun will be eclipsed and the troupes of stars. He will roll up heaven. The light of the moon will perish. He will elevate ravines, and destroy the heights of hills. No longer will mournful height appear among men. Mountains will be equal to plains, and all the sea will no longer bear voyage. For earth will then be parched with its springs. Bubbling rivers will fail.

Even the Romans considered these types of things to be signs of impending doom. David Aune cites Lactantius’s Epitome 71 (Revelation 2:414, compare to Tacitus, Hist. 1.3.3):

Lactantius Epitome 71 To these plagues will be added also miraculous signs [prodigia] from heaven, that everything may combine to increase human alarm. Comets will frequently be seen. The sun will be darkened with perpetual gloom; the moon will be dyed in blood, nor will it renew its lost light; all the stars will fall, nor will the seasons observe their proper course, for winter and summer will be confounded.

In Rev 6:17, all of the people of the earth who are afflicted by these plagues attempt to hide themselves in the rocks and caves because the “great day of God’s wrath” has come. The reaction is similar to several Old Testament passages, such as Isaiah 2:19-21. But even this reaction is found in other apocalypses. For example:

Sib. Or. 3.601–607 Therefore the Immortal will inflict on all mortals disaster and famine and woes and groans and war and pestilence and lamentable ills, because they were not willing to piously honor the immortal begetter of all men, but honored idols made by hand, revering them, which mortals themselves will cast away, hiding them in clefts of rocks.

What should we make of this parallel material? Is this “revelation or research”? Or, is this like the throne room scene in that John uses the sort of language for the “great and dreadful day of the Lord” that would be expected by Jewish readers (drawn from the Hebrew Bible) and even the Greco-Roman world (drawn from the prodigia)? More difficult, how literal are these stock apocalyptic images? Perhaps John’s point here is to simply describe the standard cosmic catastrophe in terms that everyone in the first century would understand. To say that God is going to judge the world and not use this sort of language would have made little sense to his original readers.

The whole point is to strike terror into the readers because the “great and dreadful day” has come. It is not really necessary to worry over what sorts of natural disasters John is witnessing in his vision, and it is especially not appropriate to declare some modern even “fulfills” this seal. John’s point is that Wrath of the Lamb of God is fearsome indeed!

The opening of the first seal is a chance to test the method described in the previous series of posts. I suggested that reading Revelation is like reading a political cartoon from another culture and time (see also this post on the seals  in general). There are several key images in the description of the first horse and rider: they are white, the rider has a crown and a bow, and he is “bent on conquest.” How would a reader in the first century have understood the image of a white rider? Of the four horsemen, the identity of this rider is the most frequently debated. (In fact, there is not really any discussion of the meaning of the sword, famine and pestilence!)  If we read the metaphors in the context of a first century Jewish Christianity, we may be able to read the imagery as John intended them in the first place.

The color of the rider is important, but it could support any of the following views. White is often associated with victory. Roman emperors, for example, dressed in white when they celebrated a victory (Charles, Revelation, 1:1620). But white is often associated with holiness, for example when the Lord returns in chapter 19 he is wearing a white robe, the martyrs under the altar of God are wearing white robes (chapter 5).

First, it is possible that the rider is the Roman Empire / emperor, or more generally, the triumphant warfare in the Roman period. This view is less popular than it once was, although a consistent preterist like Ken Gentry sees the white horse as the Roman empire as victorious over Jerusalem (Four Views on the Book of Revelation, 53).

A second possibility is that the rider is Christ and the image is the conquest of the gospel in the present age. Those who read Revelation as from an idealist perspective understand this as preaching of the gospel which continues throughout the present age. They note that in 19:11-16 Christ is the rider of a white horse at the time of his second coming, also wearing a crown. The white rider is the progress of the gospel going out to the nations throughout the present age. This is parallel to the Olivet Discourse. Matthew 24:14 implies the gospel will be heard throughout the world prior to the return of the Messiah.

But there is some trouble with this view, primarily in explaining the meaning of the crown and bow. Matthew 24:14 only says that the gospel will be preached to the end of the age, not that it will be victorious. It is a testimony to the nations, but not specified as being successful. The crown is a victor’s crown promised to the one who overcomes in Revelation 2:10 and 3:11. In 4:4 the elders surrounding the throne are dressed in white and wear στέφανος (stefoanos), but the locust from the abyss have them as well. The “son of man” in 14:14 has a στέφανος (stefoanos) as does the woman in 12:1. The use of νικάω in this context may not necessarily be “positive,” since the same word is used in 11:7 and 13:7 with reference to demonic forces.

A third possibility is that the rider on the white horse is a parody of Christ in 19:10-16.  The rider is a  “false messiah” or “anti-Christ.” The rider is the Anti-Christ, going out “bent on conquest” from the beginning of the tribulation. Several contrasts with the white rider in chapter 19 can be noted, for example, in 19:10-16 the name of the rider is “Faithful and True,” here the rider is given the power to judge and make war. The crowns are different, the weapons are different.

There is a different word used for crown in chapter 6 than in chapter 19. In 6:2 the rider has a bow rather than a sword and he is wearing a στέφανος (stefoanos); in 19:12 he has a sword (coming out of his mouth, describing the power of his word) and a διάδημα (diadema). In addition, the crown “as given” to him, an example of a “Divine passive.”  In addition, it was the Lamb who opened the seals in the first place, it seems unlikely that he would also be the rider. A bow is more naturally a symbol of an enemy, connected to the enemies of God rather than the presentation of the gospel. Ezekiel 39:3, for example, associates the bow with one of the ultimate enemies of God lead by Gog.

The first horseman as an anti-messiah parody fits well with the Olivet discourse since military conquests are associated with the nearness of the end, as are the presence of false-Christs. The word in Matthew, however, is pseudeo-christ not anti-christ.  Yet John himself saw the work of anti-christs even in his own time (1 John 2:18).

If the second through the sixth seal parallel the Olivet discourse, then perhaps it is best to see the first seal as a parallel as well. This leaves two options, the victory of the gospel and the progression of the Anti-Christ. Since the context of the second through fourth seal is not the verse about the gospel, but rather the appearance of false messiahs, it is best to conclude the white horse is a parody of the Messiah.

This conclusion would have been understood by a Jewish Christian readership which knew of the idea of a great persecution at the end of the age, and perhaps even the typology of Antichious Epiphanes from Daniel.  In addition, a Christian congregation may very well have known the teaching of Jesus about false-messiahs.  What is more, it is certain that a person living in the Roman empire would have understood the image as referring to Rome as the empire which is “bent on conquest.”

But there is nothing in this metaphor which invites the reader to identify the white rider with any political or religious figure in history, ancient or recent.  John is painting a picture in the mind of the reader of a conquering ruler who will make war against the people of God in the future with imagery drawn from the first-century Roman empire.

Within the structure of Revelation, John uses imagery to describe events on earth and in heaven during the coming period of persecution before the return of the Messiah. The first image is of the opening of a document with seven seals, the second is a series of seven angels blowing trumpets, and the last is a series of seven bowls which are upturned as judgment is pronounced.

These are sometimes called the seven “judgments” since they tend to be a judgments, although not all can be described in this way. The fifth seal, for example, is a scene in heaven of those who have been martyred. Some are simply events that set up the final conflict between the Beast and Christ.

The difficulty in interpreting these judgments is that the language is highly symbolic. John is describing these events in metaphorical language. As I have said, reading Revelation is like looking at a political cartoon from another culture and time. I need to understand the cultural and historical cues in the imagery in order to understand John’s original intention. For an American, baseball and cowboy movies are “image sets” which virtually everyone understands.

Greg Beale suggests that there are several potential “image sets” which inform John’s descriptions used in the vision (Revelation 370f). Nero’s persecution of Christians after the great fire in Rome is a good possibility, as are two major earthquakes in the Lycus valley in A.D. 17 and 60. An often overlooked event for the study of Revelation is the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79. This is intriguing especially for the fifth trumpet, since the descriptions of that catastrophe in contemporary literature sound quite a bit like John’s description of the opening of the Abyss. Beale also mentions a great famine in A.D. 92, an event which would have been fresh in the minds of those living in Asia Minor.

In fact, these are all well-known events to Christians living in Asia Minor in the 90’s A.D. If John alluded to the terror of a major earthquake in the Lycus Valley in 60, it is possible some hearing Revelation for the first time experienced that earthquake in their youth or heard stories from their parents about it. Personal experience is what makes a metaphor “work,” John used language that resonated with his readers.

To Beale’s list I would add the fall of Jerusalem, since the burning of Jerusalem and the Temple was a traumatic loss to the Jews, even to Christian Jews. I think that the original readers of Revelation were Jewish Christians. As followers of Jesus, the fall of Jerusalem would a confirmation of Jesus’ own predictions, but it was nonetheless a crisis of faith. Undoubtedly stories of those final days circulated among Jewish Christians who may have lost family members in Rome’s military action.

Finally, the main source for all of John’s imagery is the Hebrew Bible. He draws on the language of the curses of the Law for the three cycles of judgments. For example, Leviticus 26:21-26 as background to the four horsemen. The Exodus narrative provides some of the imagery for the trumpets. It is easy enough to hear echoes of the plagues in the descriptions of the first four trumpets.

When John describes a coming time of great persecution, he is talking about present realities. In my opinion it is the growing persecution of Christianity under Domitian as well as internal struggles caused by the success of the church among the Gentiles. John is using creative language drawn from well-known events of his day; but he also talking “through” the events to their ultimate fulfillment in the end times.

The metaphor of heavenly books is common in both the biblical and apocalyptic materials. This is a stock image drawn from a court room scene. In Dan 7:10, for example, thrones are set in place and the Ancient of Days takes his place at the head of the court. Once the court was seated, “the books were opened.” Based on the content of these books, the blasphemous “little horn” is thrown into blazing fire. So what is the content of an “apocalyptic book”?

Angel BooksSometimes these books record the names of the redeemed; or conversely, the names of the wicked are “blotted out” of the books. This is probably based on Exodus 32:32–33. In this non-apocalyptic text, the Lord says “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.” The Psalmist asks God to blot out the names of his oppressors from “the book of the living” (Ps 69:28). Originally this meant a name carved in stone that would be obliterated if the named-person offended the king. Perhaps this was based on a citizenship roll or something of the sort, but the idea a text exists containing the names of those who are part of the kingdom. Isaiah 4:3 some people have been destined to survive in Jerusalem, “everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem.” In 2 Baruch 24:1, the opened books contain both the righteous deeds of the righteous and the wicked deeds of the wicked. These books are opened after a period of oppression, “When horror seizes the inhabitants of earth, and they fall into many tribulations and further, they fall into great torments” (2 Baruch 25:3) after which the messiah comes.

In other apocalyptic contexts books contain hidden secrets sealed up to be revealed at the appropriate time. In Daniel 12:9-10 there are secrets sealed up in a book “until the end of time.” In Rev 10:4 John was prepared to write down what the seven thunders said, but he is told to “seal it up” and not writer it down. The seven thunders are therefore some hidden secret not to be revealed at that time. There are examples of this phenomenon in other apocalyptic books as well. In 1 Enoch, the seer has a great deal more revealed to him that he is permitted to write at that time,.

1 Enoch 81:1-2 Then he said unto me, “Enoch, look at the tablet(s) of heaven; read what is written upon them and understand (each element on them) one by one. So I looked at the tablet(s) of heaven, read all the writing (on them), and came to understand everything. I read that book and all the deeds of humanity and all the children of the flesh upon the earth for all the generations of the world.

In an expansion on the biblical story. Jubilees 32.20–22, at Bethel Jacob is given seven tablets determining everything that would happen to his sons in the future.

Jubilees 32.20–22 And Jacob watched until he went up into heaven. And he saw in a vision of the night, and behold an angel was descending from heaven, and there were seven tablets in his hands. And he gave (them) to Jacob, and he read them, and he knew everything which was written in them, which would happen to him and to his sons during all the ages.”

But more commonly the books contain the sins of the person under judgment. In Jude 4 the judgment against the false teachers was written down (προγράφω) long before they secretly crept into the churches. In the Animal Apocalypse, the names of the good and bad shepherds are carefully recorded in books for future judgment (1 Enoch 89:62; 90:14-22). In 1 Enoch 104:7 sins are investigated and “written down every day.” In Jubilees 5:13-14 sins are carefully written down and judgments are “are ordained, written, and engraved.”  Describing the judgment awaiting the sins of Lot’s daughters, the writer of Jubilees says:

 Jubilees 16:9 “And behold it is commanded and it is engraved concerning all of his seed in the heavenly tablets so that he will remove them and uproot them and execute their judgment just like the judgment of Sodom and so that he will not leave seed of man for him on the earth in the day of judgment.”

Bringing this back to the throne room in Revelation 5, the scroll functions similarly the last category in that the opening of the scroll subjects the world to judgment. The final judgment is the coming of the Messiah to set up thrones and render justice (Rev 20:1-6). By taking the Hebrew Bible as the immediate background and tracing the development of a metaphor in the Second Temple Period apocalypses, we are more likely to understand the metaphor as John intended.

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Christian Theology

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