The Rider on the White Horse – Revelation 19:11-16

The Return of the KingVirtually everyone agrees this passage describes the triumphal return of Christ. But as David Aune notes, the imagery used is not derived from other early Christian traditions concerning the return of the Lord (Revelation, 3:1046). The description of the return of Jesus as conquering king are drawn from a wide variety of texts in the Old Testament and Second Temple literature. In fact, the rider on a white horse is the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom.

The rider is described in somewhat familiar terms to those who read apocalyptic literature. His eyes are like a fiery flame (v 12).  Eyes like flaming torches are associated with heavenly beings, as in Dan 10:6 (Theodotian LXX). He has many crowns (diadems) on his head (12). In the Greco-Roman world, multiple crowns is an indication of sovereignty over territories.

Just as the dragon had seven crowns and the kings to come had crowns, so the rider has many crowns, perhaps so many they are not counted. He wears a robe dipped in blood (13). Normally blood is associated with the atonement, but this is not the case here.  The blood is that of the enemies of God, and is likely an allusion to Is 63:1-3.

A sharp sword comes out of his mouth (15a). This is a reference to the power of his word (Rev 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21), but the image appears elsewhere in Jewish apocalyptic.

4QIsaiah Peshera 8-10 iii 15-19 (tr. García Martínez, Dead Sea Scrolls, 186): [He will destroy the land with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he will execute the evil] ? [The interpretation of the word concerns the shoot] of David which will sprout [in the final days, since with the breath of his lips he will execute] his enemies.

The rider has several names. First, he is named Faithful and True. These titles are used for Jesus in Revelation 1:5 and 3:14. Second, he has another name inscribed which he alone knows (12b). Divine beings sometimes had a secret name or were unwilling to give their true names. In Gen 32:29, for example, God does not give his name when asked. Third, his name is “the Word of God” (13b), reminiscent of John 1:1 where Jesus is called the Word. Finally, on his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed: King of kings and Lord of lords (16).

Mantiklos Apollo with inscription on its thigh

Mantiklos Apollo with inscription on its thigh

James Edwards has recently published several examples of writing on the thigh of statues. The article includes photographs of statues of Apollo found in Miletus (fifth century BCE) and Claros (sixth century BCE) with writing on Apollo’s thigh indicating who offered a sacrifice to Apollo. These two statues date centuries before Revelation was written, but there are literary references to inscribed statues in Cicero and Pausanias indicate the practice of inscribing a name to honor the donor was well-known. Since all but one of his examples are dedicated to Apollo, Edwards argues this is an allusion to the Apollo cult, something he argues appears in Revelation 12 (Edwards, 529-535). For Edwards, the name on the thigh is therefore a “divine rejoinder to the inscription on the forehead of the great harlot” (535).

In Jesus the Bridegroom, I suggested Isaiah 49:14-26 adapted elements of Lamentations and Jeremiah 2 into a complaint song. In Isa 49:14 Lady Zion complains that her husband has forsaken her. The Lord protests, however, stating that he has in no way forgotten his bride. The Lord cannot forget his bride Zion because her name is “inscribed on his palms.”

While the vocabulary is different, “inscribing on the arm” is an indication of love in Song 8:6. Fox sees a parallel between Song 8:6 and the Cairo Love Songs (COS 1.150) in which a young man expresses his desire to always be near his beloved: “If only I were her little seal–ring, the keeper of her finger! I would see her love each and every day.”  As Marvin Pope suggests, anatomical descriptions in poetry are quite flexible. An “arm wearing a ring” in Song 8:6 should likely be understood as a hand.

But there is considerable difference between a mark or symbol on one’s hand and a name inscribed on one’s thigh. However, in the context of the final chapters of Revelation, the rider on the white horse is coming to the wedding banquet of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-8). In Isaiah 49:18, the Lord swears an oath that Zion will adorn herself as a bride once again as her children return to Jerusalem. These verses are likely an allusion to Jeremiah 2:32, “can a girl forget her ornaments?”

I suggest, therefore, that the name on the thigh is part of the marriage imagery present in Revelation 19-22 and draws on the rich imagery of Israel’s marriage relationship with God in the Hebrew Bible. As in Isaiah 49, God has not forsaken his bride Israel and is now returning to rescue her from her oppressors.

The rider has come in order to judge in righteousness (11b).  That the messiah will be God’s righteous judge is a theme of several texts in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 98, 72:2, 96:13, Isa 11:4). He will wage war in righteousness (11b) and smites the nations with the sharp sword (15a).  He will rule the nations with a rod of iron (15b). That the Messiah will be something of a true shepherd is common in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 2:9) as well as Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25.

Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25 See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God.  Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; To shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth; At his warning the nations will flee from his presence; and he will condemn sinners by the thoughts of their hearts.

John describes this judgment as treading “the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is yet another familiar metaphor for the anger of God in Revelation and the est of the prophets. John has already used this metaphor in Rev 14:19.

The Rider on the White horse therefore represents the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom. God intervenes in history by means of a mighty warrior who renders justice. He will punish the enemies of Israel, destroying them utterly. But he will also vindicate those who have suffered on behalf of their testimony for Jesus: they are raised to new life in Rev 20.

 

Bibliography: James R. Edwards, “The Rider on the White Horse, the Thigh Inscription, and Apollo: Revelation 19:16,” JBL 137.2 (2018): 519-536.Long, Jesus the Bridegroom: The Origin of the Eschatological Feast as a Wedding Banquet in the Synoptic Gospels (Pickwick, 2013).

 

 

 

 

Three Woes against Babylon – Revelation 18:9-20

Revelation 18:9-20 contains a series of three “woes” against the great city, Babylon. As with the Great Prostitute in Revelation 17, this city is the Roman Empire. Chapter 18 focuses on the economic allure of the Empire.

Roman trade Vessel

What is a woe? The word translated woe (“alas” in the ESV) is οὐαί, a transliteration of the Hebrew הוֹי, אוֹי. The word is an “interjection denoting pain or displeasure…hardship or distress” (BDAG) and it is used on the Old Testament frequently to introduce impending judgment (Zeph 3:1; Nahum 3:1). The repeated phrase “woe, woe, the great city” may evoke Revelation 11:8; the two witnesses lie dead in “the street of the great city.” In that context, the “great city” is Jerusalem (where their Lord was crucified), which is also called Sodom and Egypt. But the great city in chapter 18 is Babylon, a cipher for Rome and the Roman empire.

Revelation 18:9-20 can be divided by the phrase “Woe, woe” and a statement about Babylon, or by the three sets of mourners (kings vv. 9-10; merchants, vv. 11-17a; and seafarers, vv 17b-19; Fanning, Revelation, 456). The difference between a merchant and a sea merchant is less clear in Greek than in English. The word translated merchant (ἔμπορος) is often used for “one who travels by ship for business reasons” (BDAG) and is sometimes used for a passenger on a ship (BrillDAG). Think of this term as a wholesaler who imports goods from distant lands (by sea).

In the first woe, the kings of the earth weep and moan when the see the prostitute (Babylon/Rome) in flames (18:9-14). This whole section uses common language associated with a funeral. Weeping (v. 9, 15, 19, using synonyms κλαίω and πενθέω) is commonly associated with death. To moan (κόπτω) refers to beating one’s chest in response to a tragic event, such as a death (Gen 23:2, Abraham mourns when Sarah died). In verse 19 the sea merchants throw dust on their heads, another common sign of mourning.

Is it possible Revelation 18 describes the great prostitute as “burned alive”? Babylon is descried several times as tortured and the reaction of the kings and merchants is terror at her torture (18:15). The great prostitute of Babylon is now described as a corpse, consumed by a funeral pyre, and her partners in adultery stand at a distance, horrified by her shocking death.

Fiery judgment is standard prophetic language in the OT, for example, Jeremiah 34:21 anticipates the burning of Jerusalem; Isaiah 34:10 describes a fire that will never be quenched. Other apocalyptic literature anticipates the fiery end of the city of Rome (Sib. Or. 2.15-19; 3.52-54; 5.158-161).

Sib. Or. 2.15–19 Then indeed the tenth generation of men will also appear after these things, when the earth-shaking lightning-giver will break the glory of idols and shake the people of seven-hilled Rome. Great wealth will perish, burned in a great fire by the flame of Hephaestus.

Sib. Or. 3.52–54 Three will destroy Rome with piteous fate. All men will perish in their own dwellings when the fiery cataract flows from heaven.

Sib. Or. 5.158–161 …a great star will come from heaven to the wondrous sea and will burn the deep sea and Babylon itself and the land of Italy, because of which many holy faithful Hebrews and a true people perished.

It is possible the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is in the background here, although it may be the case Genesis 18 is the prototype for all fiery judgments in the Old Testament and literature of the Second Temple period. In Genesis18:28 Abraham observes the dense smoke of the fiery destruction of the two cities “like smoke from a furnace.” Although there is no reference in Genesis to Abraham mourning over the destruction of the cities, he did intercede on their behalf earlier in the story.

All three categories, kings, merchants and sea farers “stand far off” (v. 10, 15, 17). The kings and merchants are “in fear of her torment (βασανισμός).” This specific word was used in Revelation 9:5b (the locust tormented people for five months) and several times in Revelation 18.

The merchants of the earth mourn because of the loss of income (18:10-13). The merchants have become wealthy from their economic relationship with Babylon/Rome. For John, this is sharing in the wages of the prostitute. In verse 15 the merchants are terrified by the prostitute’s torture, here their mourning is motivated by their loss of income. When Babylon/Rome falls, there is no one left to buy their cargo.

This list of trade goods is limited to luxury items, some of which come from as far away as Arabia (frankincense), Egypt (fine flour). East Africa (cinnamon) and India (ivory; spices). This cargo list may allude to Ezekiel 27:12-25. This is a taunt-song against the king of Tyre. That chapter describes the far-flung trade of Tyre and the dreadful end of their trading empire. Like Babylon in Isaiah 14, the prince of Tyre is described in Ezekiel 28 as utterly arrogant, thinking of himself as god because of his widespread trade.

Based on the letters to the seven churches, it appears that some early Christians in Asia Minor adapted themselves to the imperial cult or to participation in banquets at local temples. Revelation compares any compromise with the imperial cult with being intoxicated and committing adultery with the mother of all prostitutes. Some early Christian readers of Revelation separated the economic prosperity they enjoyed as a result of Rome’s widespread trade from participation in the imperial cult. But here in Revelation 17-18, everyone who thrived from Rome’s economic power will weep and mourn in the empire is finally judged.

Come Out of Babylon! Revelation 18:4-8

Yet another voice from heaven calls God’s people out of Babylon. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah called on Israel to flee Babylon; John is using language from both prophets to call for another exodus out of Babylon.

In a clear allusion to the original Exodus, Isaiah 52:11 tells the people to depart from Babylon. They are not to go out in haste because God himself will lead them and also be their “rear guard.” Since Revelation has frequently alluded to the ten plagues to describe the ongoing judgment of the kingdom of the beast, it should be no surprise John picks up on the language of the Exodus to call his people to flee Babylon. Revelation 18:4 and Isaiah 52:12 both use the aorist imperative ἐξέλθατε, “come out.”

Bob Marley ExodusJeremiah 50:8-10 calls on Israel to flee Babylon because God is stirring up the nations to plunder her. Rather than the Exodus, Jeremiah is looking forward to the fall of Babylon when nations from the north (Persia and the Medes) plunder the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah 51:6-10 is clearly in the background of Revelation 18:4-8. Jeremiah describes Babylon as a fallen and broken woman. Like Revelation 18:5, her judgment has “reached up to heaven” (51:9).

If Babylon refers to Rome in Revelation 17-18, some scholars suggest Revelation 18 is a call for Christians to leave the literal city of Rome (perhaps in anticipation of persecution). However, just as the call to “come out of Babylon” in Isaiah and Jeremiah referred to leaving the Babylonian empire in general, John’s intention is for God’s people to leave the Roman Empire. This cannot mean leave Rome and go to another place, since there is no other place to go! As David Aune says, this is a “the summons to flee from the city is used symbolically, with the city referring to the demonic social and political power structure that constituted the Roman empire” (Revelation, 3:991).

The reason they are to “come out” is so that they do not share in her sins, her since are “piled up to heaven” and God remembers her crimes. After the exile, Ezra confessed guilt “as high as the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). If they share in her sins, they will also share in the plagues which punish those sins.

Babylon’s judgment will repay her double for what she has done, a clear allusion to Jeremiah 50:29 (cf. 51:24). The Lord will give her a double portion of punishment to drink, as much torture and grief as she gave herself luxury

In Revelation 18:4-8 God’s people are called to separate from the social structure of the Roman world. This is a radical calling that is consistent with the rest of Revelation. In the Seven Letters believers are called to live different from prevailing culture, later they resist the power of the beast and refuse to take the mark of the beast even though this results in their death.

This is perhaps the most challenging portion of Revelation for Christians living in various cultures and times in history. How should Christians “come out of Babylon” today? How do we refuse the “demonic social and political power structure” and not take part in the sins of contemporary culture?  As 2 Corinthians 6:17 says, God’s people are called to be separate from the world, “touching no unclean thing.” This is not just talking about clear, ugly sins, but also participation in a political and social structure that is objectively evil.

In the context of Revelation, there are people claim to be Christians who do not separate from the world and do in fact “touch unclean things,” Jezebel (2:20) and Balaam (2:14), the Nicolaitans (2:6, 15) and those who worship the beast and take his number. These are Christians who think they are serving God while they participate in the imperial cult and all that comes along with that. Although the details are different, it is clear many Christians today have little trouble supporting and participating in modern demonic social and political power structures.

 

A Lament for Fallen Babylon – Revelation 18:1-3

 After an angel explains the image of the great prostitute, John sees another angel coming down from heaven to announce that Babylon has fallen.

Fall of Babylon, Angers Tapestry

This angel has great authority and “the earth was made bright with his glory.” Normally only God is described as glorious, this is the only time in Revelation the word is applied to an angelic being. Aune (3:985) suggests an allusion to Ezekiel 43:2, “the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory.” The wording in the LXX is considerably different even if there is a similar theme.

The angel announces Babylon has fallen (18:2-3). The angel’s announcement repeats the phrase “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” from Revelation 14:8. Most scholars consider this a clear allusion to Isaiah 21:9, John considers the fall of ancient Babylon as a model for the impending fall of Rome.

But is the Babylon of Revelation 18 the same as the great prostitute in Revelation 17? Although the consensus view both Revelation 17 and 18 refer to, some commentators think Revelation 18 refers to Jerusalem. Iain Provan, for example, rejects common view that the chapter condemns Roman economic exploitation and argues the chapter condemns religious idolatry of Jerusalem, consistent with the many allusions to the Old Testament in the chapter. Following Massyngberde Ford, he cites the 1Q Pesher to Habakkuk from Qumran. In this text, Babylon’s economic oppression of the nations in Habakkuk 2:8a is applied to the “last priests in Jerusalem”:

1QpHab Col. ix:3 Since you pillaged many peoples all the 4 rest of the nations will pillage you». Blank Its interpretation concerns the last priests of Jerusalem, 5 who will accumulate riches and loot from plundering the nations. 6 However, in the last days their riches and their loot will be given into the hands 7 of the army of the Kittim. (trans. Martı́nez and Tigchelaar).

1QpHab Col. xii:6  And as for what he says: Hab 2:17 «Owing to the blood 7 of the city and the violence (done to) the country». Its interpretation: the city is Jerusalem 8 in which the /Wicked/ Priest performed repulsive acts and defiled 9 the Sanctuary of God.

These two examples do in fact apply the destruction of Babylon to impending judgment on the corrupt priesthood currently in charge of the Temple when the commentary was written. But everything in Habakkuk is interpreted as a condemnation of the Wicked Priest.

Babylon will become a “dwelling place for demons” (18:2). In Isaiah 13:21-22 the prophet describes the fall of Babylon and the utter desolation of the city. “Howling animals” will live in the city. The noun (אֹחַ) refers to “howling desert animals” (HALOT). The Septuagint translated this as “divine beings (demons?) will dance there” (καὶ δαιμόνια ἐκεῖ ὀρχήσονται, LES2), or “there goat-demons will dance” (NRSV). Jeremiah 51:37 describes Babylon as a heap of ruins and a haunt of jackals. The ESV’s “haunt” translates φυλακή, most often a literal prison in the New Testament. But in Revelation, the word is used to refer to “the nether world or its place of punishment” (BDAG), as in 20:7.

Desolate cities are frequently described as a place where wild animals live. Jeremiah 9:10-12 for example, Jerusalem will be a heap of ruins and a lair of jackals. Many texts associate the presence of jackals and owls with demons: “all the spirits of the ravaging angels and the bastard spirits, demons, Lilith, owls and [jackals …]” (4Q510 Frag. 1:5). In Zephaniah 2:13 Nineveh is desolated and “the owl and the hedgehog shall lodge in her capitals” and “a lair for wild beasts” (2:15).

The kings of the earth committed adultery with Babylon through economic exploitation (18:3). Revelation 18:11-13 will pick up the economic oppressive of the merchants. In this verse, the merchants have “grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” As Richard Bauckham says, it is a mistake to think John condemns Rome “only because of the imperial cult and the persecution of Christians. Rather, this issue serves to bring to the surface evils which were deeply rooted in the whole system of Roman power” (“The Economic Critique of Rome,” 58).

I do not think there is a sharp separation between economic exploitation and the imperial cult in Revelation. Even in Revelation 13, those who do not have the mark of the beast cannot participate in economic activity. Those who “buy or sell” includes local merchants in every city in Asia Minor as much as merchants who imports goods from across the seas to sell at a high profit in Rome.

 

Bibliography: Richard Bauckham, “The Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation 18,” in Images of Empire, (ed. Loveday Alexander, JSOTSup 122; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991); Alan J. Beagley, The Sitz im Leben of the Apocalypse with Particular Reference to the Role of the Church’s Enemies (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1987); Iain Provan, “Foul Spirits, Fornication and Finance: Revelation 18 from an Old Testament Perspective.” JSNT 64 (1996) 81-100.

The Fall of the Great Prostitute – Revelation 17:15-18

Revelation 17:15-18 interprets the phrase “many waters” from 17:1. The great prostitute was seated on the waters indicates she rules over the nations.

Great Whore of Babylon

Waters are a common metaphor for the nations in apocalyptic literature. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah describe the coming armies of the Assyrians (Isaiah 8:6-8) the Babylonians (Jeremiah 47:2), David Aune points out a similar interpretation of Nahum 1:4, the Lord roars and the seas dry up. In 4Q Nahum Pesher (4Q169 Frags. 1–2:3) the sea refers to the Kittim, the Romans. God roars “to car[ry out] judgment against them and to eliminate them from the face of [the earth.]” In the third Sibylline Oracle, “Beliar will come from the Sebastēnoi and he will raise up the height of mountains, he will raise up the sea” (Sib. Or. 3.63–64), referring to the armies of Rome.

The woman sits on many waters, upon the beast, and upon seven hills (17:1, 3, 9) and in 18:7 the prostitute boasts she “sits as a queen.”  The word here is the common verb κάθημαι. In Revelation, either God or the Lamb is seated on the throne (4:2, 3, 9, 10; 5:1, 7, 13; 6:16; 7:10, 15; 19:4, 20:11, 21:5) and three times the word is used for the “son of man” seated on a cloud. The word therefore has a connotation of authority, the one who is “seated” has some sort of authority associated with their location (Schneider, TDNT 3:441-42). The “one on the throne” is sovereign because he is enthroned in Heaven, as is the Lamb since he too is seated on the heavenly throne. The elders have some rulership since they also sit on thrones around the throne of God (4:4) The dead who are raised after the final judgment are seated on thrones and are given authority (20:4).  This future enthronement is promised 3:21 where those who overcome are promised “the right” to sit on the Father’s throne.

In the light of these observations, “seated” in Revelation 17 is an “anti-enthronement” of the great prostitute. She claims to be the queen of the word (18:7) therefore she is “enthroned” on many waters, on the “beast”, and on seven hills.  If the authority comes from where one is seated, there is a clear contrast between God’s sovereignty, enthroned in heaven, and the prostitute’s authority, seated on earth.

The readers of Revelation know who is really enthroned above creation, but on earth the great prostitute appears sovereign. Her authority, however, is derived from the beast (the location of her enthronement). The beast in turn received his authority from the dragon (13:4) who we know to be Satan himself (12:9). Chapter 17-18 forms a culmination of the enthronement theme as Satan’s representative is clearly seen for what she is, a drunken whore who makes the nations mad with her wine.

The ten horns from 17:3 are kings or nations allied with the Beast (17:12). But now both the ten kings and the beast “will hate the prostitute. It is possible rumor this is another allusion to the Return of Nero myth, this time coming from the east with Parthian armies to conquer Rome (Aune, 3:957).

The ten kings will make the great prostitute “desolate and naked and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” Aune sees this as an allusion to Ezekiel 23:26-29, those who survive the fall of Jerusalem will be treated like a prostitute, stripped naked and driven through the streets (cf. Jer 13:26-27; Ezek 16:37-38; Hosea 2:5, 12; Nahum 2). Beale, on the other hand, argues this text alludes to Isaiah 23 (Revelation 850). Although the trade of Tyre is described as the wages of a prostitute (23:18), Tyre is not personified as prostitute. Julia Myers O’Brien argues Tyre is not punished for her promiscuity, but rather the wages of her prostitution is dedicated to the Lord, in Nahum (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 69.

Beale suggests “eating flesh” is an allusion to Elijah’s prediction dogs would eat the flesh of Jezebel (2 Kings 9:36). The Baal worship promoted by Jezebel was as much economic as idolatrous and Revelation has already used the name Jezebel to describe a prophetess who likely promoted Christian participation in Roman cultic activity (perhaps for economic reasons). Like the fall of the great prostitute, Jezebel’s grisly death was “according to the word of the Lord” (Revelation, 883-84).

The eighth Sibylline Oracle predicts the destruction of Rome by fire when Nero returns from the end of the earth (Sib. Or. 8.68–72). Although this apocalyptic text is later than Revelation, the immediately preceding section in the Oracle is a warning against greed and the following section describes Rome as the “luxurious one.” Like Revelation 18, Rome’s opulence and economic oppressive will result in her destruction; she will be “utterly ravaged.”

Sib. Or. 8.37–41 One day, proud Rome, there will come upon you from above an equal heavenly affliction, and you will first bend the neck and be razed to the ground, and fire will consume you, altogether laid low on your floors, and wealth will perish and wolves and foxes will dwell in your foundations.

Sib. Or. 8.128–130 You will be utterly ravaged and destroyed for what you did. Groaning in panic, you will give until you have repaid all, and you will be a triumph-spectacle to the world and a reproach of all.

This rebellion against the great prostitute was prompted God. God “put it into their hearts” is a “Semitic idiom” (See Neh 2:12; 7:5, for example; Aune 3:958).  They have one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast. These infinitive clauses explain what God has prompted the nations to do.

The fall of Babylon / Rome results in great economic loss for the empire (Rev 18). Although the Roman imperial cult is certainly in the background of Revelation 17, it is important to not separation religious duty from political loyalty and economic prosperity. The reason people worshiped the goddess Roma, the empire and its emperors was to ensure their own continued peace and prosperity. Political loyalty, religion and economic prosperity were as incestuously intertwined in the Roman world as they are in our own.

Who are the Kings in Revelation 17?

John is greatly astonished by the great prostitute. The angel who showed him the woman riding the scarlet beast (17:3) explains some of the elements of the vision. Like the meaning of the mark of the beast, the identity of the beast’s seven heads and kings “calls for wisdom” (17:9, cf., 13:18). And like the meaning of the mark of the beast, there are many suggestions for who these seven kings are.

The great prostitute riding the beast

The phrase translated “greatly amazed” (θαυμάζω…θαῦμα μέγα) in the NRSV could have the sense of “greatly disturbed,” the context determines θαυμάζω is used in a good or bad sense (BDAG). Some scholars consider this phrase reflect a Hebrew phrase (NewDocs 5, 35). The LXX uses θαυμάζω with the sense of “appalled” (Lev 26:32, translating שׁמם, “to shudder, be appalled”). What John sees in 17:2-6a is shocking and he needs the angel to explain the terrifying vision. In 17:8 the nations will “marvel” at the scarlet beast, although this still could be read as “were appalled” when they saw the beast. Although this might be overinterpreting the text, perhaps the point is John is appalled by the great prostitute drink on the blood of the saints, but the world is amazed and worships her and the beast she rides.

The scarlet beast “was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction” (ESV), a phrase repeated three times in this paragraph. This odd phrase is similar to Greek epitaphs, such as “I was not, I was born, I was, I am not; so much for that” (Aune, Revelation, 3:940). However, in the context of Revelation, God is described as “who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:4, 8; 11:17; 16:5).

Is the scarlet beast the same as the great red dragon introduced in Revelation 12? The dragon is red (πυρρός); the beast in Revelation 17 is scarlet (κόκκινος). John identified the dragon as Satan (12:9; 20:2), but this scarlet beast is an empire ruled by kings. The dragon is one of the clear symbols in the book, so it does not seem to fit this scarlet beast.

Is the scarlet beast the same as the beast from the sea introduced in Revelation13? This seems more likely since there are a number of parallels between Revelation 13 and 17. Like the beast in 13:1, this scarlet beast the bottomless pit, or the Abyss (ἄβυσσος). In Revelation 11 the bottomless pit is the home of the demonic locust horde, ruled by Abaddon. It is possible this beast is the king of the Abyss, but it is more likely the Abyss and the Sea as parallel terms. This beast rises a last time to go to his destruction (ἀπώλεια), a word related to the name of the king of the Abyss, Apollyon (Rev 9:11).  All the inhabitants of earth who are not in the Lamb’s book of life are “astonished” at this beast. This is parallel to Revelation 13:3 when the beast from the sea is wounded and appears dead yet appears to come back to life. The “names written in the Lamb’s book of life” is repeated from Revelation 13:8.

Like the mark of the beast, the angel reveals the mystery of the woman and the beast she rides (17:7). The beast has seven heads and ten horns. The heads are the seven hills on which she sits but also seven kings. The horns are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom (17:12-14). The waters on which she sits are the great multitudes of the nations (17:15).

I have dealt with some of the details in an earlier post. The common view is the city on seven hills refers to Rome. In this example from Juvenal Rome is the city on seven hills and traders flock to the city by ship and coach (cf. Rev 18:9-10).

Juvenal, Satires 9.130 “Never fear: so long as these Seven Hills stand fast you’ll always have friends in the trade, they’ll still come flocking from near and far, by ship or by coach, these gentry who scratch their heads with one finger.”

The seven hills are a problem for expositors who interpret the city as Jerusalem since the city is not built on seven hills. Despite attempts to identify seven hills (the lists vary), I know of no ancient source that describes Jerusalem as a city on seven hills.

For many expositors, the seven hills refer to Rome and the kings are a series of kings in Roman history. The trouble is where to start the sequence and who to include in the series. Aune offers nine variations, some beginning as early as Julius Caesar and others terminating as late as Nevra. Some of the schemes include Galba, Otho, and Vitellus, others omit these three minor emperors who rule briefly in the year between Nero’s death and Vespasian’s ascension to the throne.

Greg Beale, on the other hand, takes the mountains as symbolic of strength in Apocalyptic literature and the number seven as referring to completeness (cf. Aune 3:948). For Beale, this text does not refer to seven kings in any sequence but rather the mountains and kings “represent the oppressive power of world government throughout the ages” (Beale, Revelation 889).

It is also possible to focus on the sixth king as John’s main interest and ignore the first five. It is this sixth king who is well known to the readers (Nero or Domitian, depending on the date of the book). A final king will come soon but will only remain a short time. Bauckham pointed out the odd wording of seven kings, then an eighth is a “‘graded numerical saying,’ which uses two consecutive numbers as parallels” (cited in Aune, 3:950). Smalley suggested the “eighth king” is probably Domitian as Nero redivivus (Thunder and Love, 135-36).

This seems hopelessly complicated. But the point of the vision is not far from Daniel’s visions of empires in Daniel 2, 7 and 11. The kingdom of man will not stand long, nor will God allow the final kingdom to continue to persecute his people. Babylon is about to fall!

The Final Visions: Revelation 17-22

The final chapters of Revelation are another seven-element cycle serving as the climax to the book. Chapter 16 ended with the nations gathering at Armageddon and the announcement from the heavenly temple that “it is done.” God has remembered Babylon the great and the stage is set for the final judgment of the kingdom of the beast. Like Daniel 7, the kingdom of Babylon and the nations will finally be replaced by God’s kingdom.

Denarius, Roma, four horsemen

Roma on a denarius struck in Rome 116-115 BCE, with four horses on the reverse

Using the phrase “and I saw” or “and I heard,” the final seven units of Revelation can be outlined as follows:

  • 17:1-18 – The Great Whore and the Scarlet Beast
  • 18:1-24 – The Fall of Babylon the Great
  • 19:1-10 – Worship over God’s Just Judgment
  • 19:11-21 – The Final Victory over Babylon
  • 20:1-10 – The Thousand Year Reign
  • 20:11-15 – The Great White Throne Judgment
  • 21:1-22:5 – The New Heavens and New Earth

There are several unique features in Revelation 17. First, angelic guides are common in apocalyptic, but they are usually used differently in Revelation. In other apocalyptic (Ezekiel 37, Daniel 8, Zechariah 1-6), someone has a vision, then asks questions (“what does that mean?”), and the angelic guide gives an explanation. In the rest of Revelation angels are usually part of the vision, but in chapter 17 the angel is an apocalyptic host. John is shown the judgement of the prostitute and then then angel gives John an explanation of the vision. This explanation identifies key symbolic elements, some of which are clear, but others are still obscure. Like Daniel 8 or Daniel 10-12, the angel’s explanation often generates more questions than answers (for the modern reader).

Second, the image described in Revelation 17:1-6 is picture rather than an action. In other visions, John sees something happening. But the image of the prostitute is like a description of a painting or fresco. David Aune therefore suggests this is a specialized form of apocalyptic vision known as an ekphrasis, a literary description of a work of art (Revelation, 3:919). There is an old saying, “a picture paints a thousand words.” Think of an ekphrasis is the thousand words. What is John seeing? As I have said in another post, John is seeing some form of imperial propaganda, whether a coin depicting the goddess Roma or some statue or frieze showing the goddess sitting on the seven hills of Rome.

Third, Revelation 17:1-19:10 finally makes the identity of the enemy clear: Babylon is Rome. Just as Babylon was the great evil empire oppressing God’s people in Daniel, now Rome is the ultimate anti-God empire oppressing God’s people. The book has been hinting at the identity of the beast and the kingdom of the beast in chapters 12-16, now in chapters 17-19 it becomes clear John calls Rome a great prostitute drink on the blood of the saints.

The Seventh Bowl: It is Done! Revelation 16:17-21

With the pouring of the bowl a loud voice came out from the temple, from the throne announcing, “it is done!” This is immediately followed by lightning, thunder and a great earthquake.

Fiery Hailstines Revelation

Unlike the seventh seal (silence) or the seventh trumpet (jubilant worship), when the seventh angel pours out the final bowl of God’s wrath, John hears a loud voice from the temple and throne. “It is done” translates a single word, a perfect active indicative of γίνομαι. Although this sounds like Jesus’s final words from the cross, the John 19:30 has τετέλεσται, a perfect passive indicative from τελέω, “it is finished.” Like John 19:30, the word means something like, “it has been accomplished.” The same word in Revelation 21:6 when the one seated on the throne announces he is making all things new.

Verse 19 is another interpretive problem. John says the earthquake was so powerful “the great city splits into three parts.” As with other unidentified cities in Revelation, some scholars suggest this refers to Jerusalem, others suggest Babylon. But depending on the interpreter, Babylon is a metaphor for Jerusalem or Rome. If this great city is the same as Revelation 11:8, then it is Jerusalem. However, the key is “God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.” In Revelation 17:18 (and many times in chapter 18) the great city of Babylon refers to Rome.

That God “remembers” Babylon is significant. First, the verb is another example of the divine passive in Revelation (ἐμνήσθη is aorist passive of μιμνῄσκομαι). Most modern translations change the verb to active. Second, when God remembers in the Old Testament, it is often for salvation. God remembers his promises in his covenants and keeps them (Exod 2:24). In Jeremiah 31:20 God remembers his “darling child” Ephraim and will have mercy on him.

However, there are examples of God’s “punitive remembrance” (Aune 2:901). In Hosea 7:1 God remembers Israel’s sin and will punish them nation. In 1 Maccabees 7:38, the army of Judas prays “Take vengeance on this man [Nicanor] and on his army and let them fall by the sword; remember their blasphemies and let them live no longer.” In a similar context in 2 Maccabees 8:4, Judas and his army call on God “to remember also the lawless destruction of the innocent babies and the blasphemies committed against his name.” Notice God is to remember the blasphemies of the Seleucids. In Revelation 16:19 he remembers the blasphemies of the kingdom of the beast and the great whore of Babylon (Rev 17).

The chapter ends with an allusion to the seventh plague (Exod 9:13-35), apocalyptic hailstones weighing hundred pounds. Massive hailstones appear in several Old Testament contexts (Josh 10:11; Isa 28:17; Hag 2:17). David Aune has several references to unusual hail in the Roman word as a sign of “a disruption in relations with the gods requiring diagnosis and reparation” (2:902). Massive hailstones and earthquakes are common in Jewish apocalyptic as well:

Sib. Or. 3.689–699 God will judge all men by war and sword and fire and torrential rain. There will also be brimstone from heaven and stone and much grievous hail. Death will come upon four-footed creatures. Then they will recognize the immortal God who judges these things. Wailing and tumult will spread throughout the boundless earth at the death of men. All the impious will bathe in blood. The earth itself will also drink of the blood of the dying; wild beasts will be sated with flesh. God himself, the great eternal one, told me to prophesy all these things. These things will not go unfilfilled.

In the fifth Sibylline Oracle, the return of Nero is accompanied by hail and bloody violence:

Sib. Or. 5.93–96 For the Persian will come onto your soil like hail, and he will destroy your land and evil-devising men with blood and corpses, by terrible altars, a savage-minded mighty man, much-bloodied, raving nonsense…

The Apocalypse of Abraham lists ten plagues on the earth, including increased snow and hail, thunder and earthquakes.

Apoc. Abraham 30.4–8 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.

The section ends with the people of the earth cursing God “because the plague was so terrible.” The verb curse here is often translated “blaspheme” (βλασφημέω), anticipating the blasphemy of the great whore in Revelation 17. Humanity’s response to God’s plagues is not repentance, but continued reject of God.

What is Armageddon? Revelation 16:16

 Revelation 16:16 Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

“Thus far there has been no satisfactory explanation of the name.” Joachim Jeremias, “Ἃρ Μαγεδών,” TDNT 1:468.

After the sixth bowl of God’s wrath has been poured out on the earth, the nations are deceived by demonic signs gather at a place called Armageddon. The word Armageddon has become part of western apocalyptic vocabulary, but books and films describing the “end of the world” as Armageddon do not reflect the use of the word in Revelation 16:16.

Satan attacks Jerusalem

John tells the reader the word Armageddon (Ἁρμαγεδών) is Hebrew or Aramaic (Ἑβραϊστί can mean either). The Hebrew, presumably, would be Har-Megiddo, or the Mount Megiddo. Megiddo is a well-known location in central Israel, bordering the broad Valley of Jezreel. The valley had been the site of numerous battles, from Egyptian battles in 1500 B.C. to a British conflict in 1917. Those who have visited Megiddo on an Israel tour might recall the lurid video in the visitor’s center suggesting this is the location of the “end of the world.”

But there is no Mount Megiddo. Megiddo was a city and occasionally a plain (2 Chron 35:22; Zech 12:11). Perhaps the Hebrew word could be A’r-Megiddo, the city of Megiddo, but this does not seem likely. John may not intend for Armageddon as a literal place name, but as a metaphor for the conflict between the forces of evil and the forces of God in a final battle.

It is tempting to understand Mount Megiddo as a reference to the Carmel range near Megiddo. The traditional site of Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal at Carmel overlooks the plain of Jezreel (1 Kings 18:16-45). Like the book Revelation, Elijah faces a challenge to the worship of the Lord from Ahab and Jezebel. Who is the God who is worthy of Israel’s worship? Elijah proves it is only the Lord, the God of Israel and not Baal when God sends fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice. The story has a three-year drought, famine, miraculous protect of God’s servant Elijah, and a climactic bloody slaughter of those who worship Baal.  Many of these resonate with the conflict between the kingdom of the Beast and the Lamb in Revelation.

Following a 1938 article by C. C. Torrey, Meredith Kline suggested the word should be read as har môʿēd, “Mount of Assembly.” If this is the case, then Revelation 16:16 would allude to Isaiah 14:13, one of the boasts of the king of Babylon is that he would ascend to heaven and set his throne on the high, “I will sit on the mount of assembly, I the far reaches of the north.” The Hebrew phrase בְּהַר־מוֹעֵ֖ד  (“on the mount of assembly”) is render as ἐν ὄρει ὑψηλῷ (“on the high mountain”) in the LXX. The Greek ὑψηλός refers to a high or lofty mountain, but also to arrogance or presumption (BrillDAG).

Kline points out Isaiah 14:13 has “the far reaches of the north” in parallel to the mount of assembly. The high mountain in the north (צָפוֹן, zaphon) is where the gods lived in Ugaritic mythology. Whatever real-world mountain this might refer to, in Isaiah 14 the king of Babylon is ultimately arrogant in his desire to set his throne in the place of the gods. Rather than sit in the place of the gods, the king of Babylon will be brought down to the pit (Isa 14:14).

Kline then connects Mount Zaphon (the abode of the gods in Canaanite mythology) with Mount Zion, the abode of God. Psalm 48:1 calls Mount Zion God’s holy mountain, “beautiful in elevation” and “in the far north (zaphon).” At least in this psalm, Zion is like Zaphon. But in many other texts Zion is God’s meeting place with his people.

Like the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14, Revelation 16:16 refers to the ultimate arrogant attempt to demand the worship God himself deserves. “Satan will make his last attempt to usurp Har Magedon” (p. 213). For Kline, “The typological Zion/Jerusalem provides the symbolic scenery for prophecies of the climactic conflict in the war of the ages” (p. 213). Kline supports this view by examining Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38-39.

I find Kline’s suggestion intriguing because the allusion to Isaiah 14 describes an arrogant king of Babylon who will demand to be worshiped as God. This is similar to the arrogant little horn in Daniel 7 as well as the willful king in Daniel 11. In the very next section of Revelation John describes Babylon as a whore drunk on the blood of the saints and the fall of Babylon dominates Revelation 17-19:10. However, it is difficult for me to move from Har Moed to Har Magedon.

The name of the mountain is obscure. Along with Jeremias, BDAG says the interpretation of the word is “beset with difficulties that have not yet been surmounted.” Robert Mounce agrees, the meaning of Armageddon is like the mystery of the name of the beast. There are many suggestions, but few are satisfying.

Whatever Armageddon refers to, the kingdom of the beast will gather for a final confrontation with the Lamb that was slain in order to finally show who is worthy of the worship of the nations.

Bibliography: Meredith G. Kline, “Har Magedon: The End of the Millennium” JETS 39 (1996): 207-223; C. C. Torrey, “Armageddon,” HTR 31 (1938): 237-248.

I Come Like a Thief! Revelation 16:15

Revelation 16:15 “Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.”

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Biblia Dudesch, 1522

This verse is a curiosity for several reasons. First, the verse appears to be Jesus’s own words. In Revelation 3:3 he warned the church at Sardis to wake up, otherwise he would come like a thief. Many English translations therefore put the verse in “red letters” like the letters to the seven churches.

Second, how is this verse related to the context? It interrupts the flow of thought: the nations are deceived by demons in verse 14 and assembled for battle, in verse 16 the location of the gathering of the nations is Armageddon. Because it seems like an interruption, many translations also put the verse in parenthesis (ESV, NRSV).

Third, this verse may be a hint of some editorial revisions of Revelation. David Aune suggests the verse is an interpolation, inserted into the text into the “second edition of Revelation” (2:896). In his view, a later editor added 1:3-14, the letters to the seven churches, this line and 22:5-21.

Jesus used the metaphor of a thief in the night in Matt 24:42-44 / Luke 12:39-40. Paul may allude to this teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:2. In both cases the point of the metaphor is to encourage watchfulness. 2 Peter 3:10 also says the day of the Lord will come like a “thief in the night.” One main difference is the subject in the Gospels is the Son of Man, in Revelation the saying is in the first person, I am coming like a thief.” Unfortunately, this metaphor was co-opted as a warning to be ready for the rapture, but that was not the point of the metaphor in the New Testament. Watchfulness and readiness, yes, but because God’s great day of judgment is coming very soon, not the rapture of the church.

As part of his response to the disciples’ question about the signs of his return, Jesus says to be alert and awake, like someone who knows when a thief will break into their house. There are two main ideas in this saying. First, the disciples are to “stay awake” or “remain alert” (γρηγορέω), the first part of Revelation 16:15. Second, the disciples are to be prepared (ἕτοιμος), the second part of 16:15. Ironically, in the garden on the night to his arrest, Jesus told Peter, James and John stay alert (γρηγορέω) while he prayer (Matt 26:41 / Mark 14:34) yet they fell asleep. Perhaps it is not a coincidence a young follower of Jesus is sleeping when Jesus was arrested and “ran away naked” (Mark 14:51).

The second part of the verse is a beatitude: blessed is the one is stays away and dressed. Like the thief in the night saying, remaining awake and prepared is found in the Gospels and Paul’s letters as a warning to be prepared for the return of Christ. In Revelation 3:18 Jesus warning the Laodiceans to dress properly themselves in order to be prepared for the soon return of the Lord. They thought they were dressed in fine clothing but they actually shamefully naked. In Revelation 6:11 the souls under the altar were given white robes; in 7:9, 13 the 144,000 are also given white robes.

If they are not awake and dressed, then they are “going about naked” and their shamefulness (ἀσχημοσύνη) will be seen. Aside from the general embarrassment of being caught naked, the word refers to a shameless act or anything which leads to disgrace.  In the Old Testament, “uncovering nakedness” is used in the context of God’s judgment on Babylon. Speaking to the “virgin daughter of Babylon,” the Lord says, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace (ἀσχημοσύνη) shall be seen” (Isa 47:3, cf., Lam 1:8). The Lord covering one’s nakedness is a sign of his provision for his people (Ezek 16:8; Hos 2:11).

The ultimate conflict between God Almighty and the kingdom of the beast demands watchfulness and preparation. But this is not an instruction to hoard food, guns, and toilet paper out of fear of the government. For John, this is a spiritual battle. The spirit of deception has gone out into the world already (1 John 4:1-3) and demands the follower of Jesus remain awake, alert, and prepared at all times.