Preparation for the Seven Bowl Plagues
5After this I looked, and the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened,6and out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues, robed in pure bright linen, with golden sashes across their chests. 7Then one of the four living creatures gave the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever; 8and the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were ended.
Preparation for the Seven Bowl Plagues (15:5-8)
I find it absolutely fascinating that John refers to the temple in heaven as the “Tent of Witness.” After God freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, he brought them to Sinai and invited them into a covenant relationship with him. After the covenant between God and his people is established, God tells Moses, “8And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. 9In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exod 25:8-9).
This place of worship is variously called a tabernacle, a tent of meeting, and a tent of witness. And God does literally “show” them what he wants. As Koester writes, “Moses was said to have received the pattern for the tent while on Mount Sinai (Exod 25:9). According to tradition, he saw an actual heavenly sanctuary, like the one depicted here in Revelation (Heb 8:1-6). The tent of Moses’ time (Exod 25:40) and the Jerusalem temple were said to be modeled after a heavenly pattern (1 Chr 28:19). According to 1 Kgs 8:4, the tabernacle was brought to the temple at the time that the temple was dedicated, helping identify the two earth sanctuaries.”
In our next Resource, Resource 10, we’ll study the amazing story of how the Bible links these sacred places where God dwells in heaven and on earth, the tabernacle and temple, with the Garden of Eden and the New Heaven and New Earth of Revelation 21 and 22. In this Seven Bowl’s section, we see that the tent of witness, God’s sanctuary in heaven, is the place from which God acts to hold accountable the idolatry, lies, greed, injustice and oppression that has infected the world God created. In Temple worship, bowls had cultic significance. They were used by the priests in sacrifices. They also held incense and were used to carry ashes from the temple.In this Seven Bowl section of Revelation, they are used to carry God’s wrath that the angels will pour out upon the idolatry and oppression of this world. As we see the sacred gold bowls, hear God’s command to the angels robed in linen with golden sashes (Rev 16:1), see the smoke from the glory and power of God, we see how fully God is committed to holding injustice accountable in God’s Creation.
The Bowls of God’s Wrath
1Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”2So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshipped its image.
3 The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died.
4 The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5And I heard the angel of the waters say,
“You are just, O Holy One, who are and were,
for you have judged these things;
6 because they shed the blood of saints and prophets,
you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!”
7And I heard the altar respond,
“Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty,
your judgements are true and just!”
8 The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire; 9they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.
10 The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, 11and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.
12 The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east. 13And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. 14These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. 15(‘See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.’) 16And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.
17 The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” 18And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. 19The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath. 20And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; 21and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.
The Bowls of God’s Wrath (16)
Reddish compares the Revelation Plagues with the Plagues in Egypt.
|Revelation’s Bowl Plagues||Exodus’ Plagues in Egypt|
|1st plague: Painful sores (16:2)||6th plague: Boils (9:8-12)|
|2nd plague: Sea turned to blood (16:3)||
1st plague: Nile River turned to blood (7:14-25)
3rd plague: Fresh water turned to blood (16:4-7)
1st plague: Nile River turned to blood (7:14-25)
|4th plague: Scorching heat of the sun (16:8-9)||9th plague (?): Darkness throughout the land (10:21-29)|
|5th plague: Darkness (16:10-11)||9th plague (?): Darkness throughout the land (10:21-29)|
|6th plague: Euphrates River dried up; three foul spirits like frogs (16:12-16)||2nd plague: Frogs (8:1-15)|
|7th plague: Lightning, thunder, earthquake, and hail (16:17-21)||7th plague: Thunder and hail (9:13-35)|
The plagues have a “retributive and penitential purpose.”Rowland compares this to Exodus 21:24, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”In other words, what we are seeing described is another example of the moral order we’ve seen throughout Revelation.
What happens in each plague?
- 1st plague: those who are marked with the mark of the beast receive a new mark – sores and agony.
- 2nd plague: waters become like the blood of a dead person – every living thing in the sea dies.
- 3rd plague: Fresh water (rivers and springs) become blood.
- 4th plague: The sun is given permission to scorch humanity.
- 5th plague: Poured on the throne of the beast and the Kingdom of the Beast is plunged into darkness.
- 6th plague: Poured on the River Euphrates, which dries up and makes way for the “Kings of the East” to conquer Babylon/Rome.
- 7th plague: The end. Brings thunder and earthquake and giant hail. Babylon is destroyed.
Things to note:
When Israel escapes Egypt, their salvation comes from the parting of the Red Sea while at the same time the armies of the Pharaoh, who commits genocide and cannot let slaves go, is judged. When the 6thplague comes and the River Euphrates is dried up, destruction of Babylon comes through the dried up sea. There are parallels with Joshua 3:14-17 and the drying of the Jordan, so that they can cross into the promised land. In Jeremiah 50:38, God dries up the waters of Babylon as punishment. That punishment is part of setting the world free from injustice.
Why frogs? In verse 13, we see what comes out of the mouths of the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. In Greek, it is pneumata (spirit), akatharta, (unclean) appearing as frogs. These same two Greek words are used for the demons in Mark 1:23 and 3:11, as well as Luke 11:24.Frogs had bad associations in the ancient world. In the Zend religion, they were the source of plagues and death. They represented evil spirits in Zoroastrianism, they were ritually unclean in Judaism (Leviticus 11:10) and they were the 2ndplague in Egypt.
If you have been waiting for Armageddon, the moment has arrived! The kings gather at har (“hill,” or “mount”) meggidon (“of Megiddo”). This hill overlooks the Valley of Megiddo which is better known as the Jezreel Valley. It extends from the lower Galilee area out to the Mediterranean Sea. Ancient Israel was a land bridge that formed a connection between the Empire of Egypt to the southwest and the empires of the north (Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Syria, Rome). The empires to the north and south often crossed the land bridge called Israel. And the easiest place to make that crossing was the Valley of Megiddo. Consequently, Megiddo was the location of many military battles. We see examples in the Hebrew Scriptures: Deborah and Barak defeat Jabin (Judges 5:19); King Ahaziah (2 Kings 9:27) and King Josiah (2 Kings 23:29) both die here.
The Unveiling: Appearances vs. Reality – An Overview of Revelation 17:1-18:24
Rome: The First Century Manifestation of Babylon
When we hear the word, “Babylon,” we think of the ancient Mesopotamian kingdom that overwhelmed and exiled the Hebrew people in 586 BCE. But in the Bible, the name, “Babylon,” goes all the way back to the city of Babel in Genesis 11 and the land around it called Babylon. Throughout the Bible, “Babylon,” is code for any nation in any age whose self-obsession is manifested in greed, injustice and oppression.
The Whore of Babylon
Living in the 21stcentury, it is vitally important to distance ourselves from John’s image of the “whore of Babylon.” In John’s first century world, the image is understandable. As we’ve already seen, Rome is identified as the current manifestation of “Babylon.” And Roma is worshipped as the goddess who embodies the Roman Empire. Roma is often portrayed in the image of a powerful, seductive woman. The relief below, found on an altar in Carthage, is based on an altar in Rome. In other words, what this relief displays is part of the imperial cult—it’s what people worshipped.
The relief portrays the goddess Roma wearing her Roman military helmet, seated next to her armor, and holding a winged victory, that is, the promise of victory as an accomplished fact. On the podium across from Roma sits a cornucopia overflowing with abundance, and a caduceus, which is a symbol of peace and security. We also see a globe, which means that there is no place in the world where these promises guaranteed by Rome do not hold true.
In this altar piece we see Roma as the seductive conflation of military power, victory, world domination, material abundance, peace combined with the implication of sexual pleasure, all tied together as civil religion. This is Roma, the religious personification of Rome, promising people pretty much anything they might want. Of course, both the ancient kingdom of Babylon and Rome, the current kingdom, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the city of Jerusalem, the nation of Israel, confiscated its wealth and enslaved its people. So it’s understandable that John would personify the seductive promises of Rome as “the whore of Babylon.”
The “whore” of Babylon is John’s reimaging of the goddess Roma. However, the risks of using this image of a “whore” are hopefully clearer today. As Tina Pippin writes, “The focus of my concern here is not with what the image symbolized. Rather, I am concerned with the way in which this image of a prostitute is portrayed and used as a female symbol.” Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther concur. They write, “It is small solace to suggest that if we were choosing how to express a vision of empire and its alternative, we would find other images than those of women’s bodies.” Indeed!
Yet, “whore” is the image John uses. In the context of the Bible, what does it mean? Howard-Brook and Gwyther write that in the Bible, “The image of ‘whoring’ implies infidelity to one’s covenant partner—that is, YHWH. It also suggests the cause of such infidelity: seduction.” Rome requires the loyalty of its people in order to accomplish its agendas. One way it commands people’s loyalty is seduction, that is, by giving people what they want.
But from a biblical perspective, this whole scenario is toxic. God created us. God created us in God’s image. The Lamb of God died and rose again for us. We are to worship God, not Rome. And God never seduces us by promising us whatever we want. God wants to transform us into God’s image, that is, into people whose lives reflect who God is. God wants to weave us into a community of people who together embody justice, righteousness and shalom. All of this requires us to repent, that is, to daily turn away from what we want to what God wants for us.
In the Bible, one of the primary illustrations of “whoring” is not sexual activity but economic activity. The economic practices of the city-state of Tyre are a prime example. Due in part to its alliance with King David, Tyre became the trading center of the world. It’s trade, extending through the Mediterranean, and south to Sudan and Somalia as far southeast as the Indian Ocean, brought Tyre enormous wealth and power. The prophet Isaiah says that Tyre “will return to her trade, and will whore herself with all the kingdoms of the worlds on the face of the earth” (Isa 23:17).
The characteristic that warrants the title, “whore,” is airtight control: trade arrangements that can’t be turned down because Tyre has a monopoly on trade, trade goods that people need or desire, and systems of management that produce predetermined results. Like Tyre, Rome’s trade extended throughout the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.
The Romans followed the same airtight control practices. They called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum, “our sea” and controlled every port on the Mediterranean. One of the ways Rome exerted control over trade was the way they built harbors. And virtually every Roman harbor on the Mediterranean Sea had the same characteristics.
We see these characteristics on the coin below minted during the reign of Nero (54-68 CE). The coin portrays Portus, the harbor at Ostia, the main harbor for the city of Rome. The harbor is filled with ships that are part of the grain fleet. At this point in time, the city of Rome imports all its grain from Egypt and North Africa. At the top center we see the lighthouse combined with a colossal statue of the emperor as god. The breakwaters surround the ships. And at the end of the breakwater in the upper left (about 10 o’clock) we see a temple. Someone in front of the temple is offering a sacrifice thanking the emperor as god for safe travel. And although it’s difficult to see, at the stern of the ship at the center and the ship at the upper right (about 1 o’clock) we also see a person with arm extended offering arrival sacrifices to the emperor. The river god Tiber reclines at the bottom. Notice what is all bound together: the emperor as god, worship, controlling trade, economic prosperity, abundant food, and the power to give people what they want.
It’s like Tyre. Tyre set up a system of trade that was essentially a monopoly. It was seductive because if a nation did not participate with Tyre’s trade machine (Tyre provided the ships, sailors, access to ports, access to resources), they were either excluded from the resources trade provided or had to create their own trade arrangements at much higher prices. Clearly, poorer nations were trapped. The choice they faced was either to participate in Tyre’s monopoly or to be excluded from the resources trade provides.
Do we see attempts at the airtight control of the market in corporations, banks, and investment firms today?
The Whore’s Golden Cup
But Babylon/Rome went beyond seducing people by providing whatever they wanted. The golden cup in the hand of the whore is filled with blood. Brook and Gwyther write,
Among the abominations and unclean things contained in the golden cup was the blood of Babylon’s victims. This image of Babylon holding the cup of blood is a powerful indictment of empire…. The people of empire are typically enthralled (thrall:‘one who is in bondage’) by the crucial role that violence plays for empire. Empire routinely engages in killing, yet it claims to be a benign actor in the world. These are not contradictory statements. Rather, it is because empire routinely engages in murder that it must claim to be benign…. The vision of Babylon as Whore suggests that Babylon is usually successful in gaining people’s allegiance by co-opting them. But when co-option fails, coercion begins…. Babylon is a place where murder is a method of social control (18:24)…. John saw that Babylon quenched its thirst with the blood of those who opposed it.
The Whore’s Insatiable Appetite
Rome’s appetite is insatiable. As we see in 18:12-13, trade brought virtually every resource imaginable to Rome. Howard-Brook and Gwyther write, “The list depicts Babylon as appropriating everythingfrom the entire earth. In the Hebrew scripture texts from which Revelation’s list is drawn, there is an implicit critique of an exploitative imperial economy.”Rome wants it all and gets it. Even slaves.
Howard-Brook and Gwyther continue:
The insidious nature of imperial trade is underscored by the commodities that conclude the list: “bodies and human souls” (18:13). In ancient Rome slaves were commonly labeled “bodies.” This underlined the status of the slave class. They were not considered human beings but commodities that could be bought and sold. People captured in the territories occupied by the Roman legions, those who broke Roman law, and even those who owed a debt could be shipped across the empire to the slave markets of the cities. Within Babylon, everyone can become a commodity. Even more than the slave trade, however, the trading in the “human soul” suggests that Babylon buys and sells the very essence of humanity.
The Whore’s Arrogance
As we read in 18:7, she glorifies herself and lived luxuriously. In her heart she says, “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief.” Howard-Brook and Gwyther write, “Arrogance at the top of sociopolitical structures blinds rulers to the fallout from their actions. Where the citizenry see this arrogance as a sign of power, the blindness is intensified. Yet the Bible contends that such arrogance is self-destructive: by its very nature it is bound to fall.”
The Fall of Babylon
Howard-Brook and Gwyther state, “Because it is so seductive, because it is prepared to murder any who pose a danger, because it regards everyone and everything as a commodity, and because it is blinded by arrogance—Babylon is ‘fallen’…. John is invited to see the ‘judgment’ of Babylon. That this word has a legal significance should not be overlooked. In the heavenly courtroom of God (which exists behind the veil) Babylon has already been tried and found guilty.”
John notes that people respond to the news that mighty Babylon has fallen in opposite ways. Kings, traders, and sailors mourn (18:9-19). Saints on earth and in heaven rejoice (18:20; 19:1-4). However, Christ’s messages to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 remind us to listen to be instructed by the judgment of Babylon. As Richard Bauckham writes, “The judgments which are so vividly described in the rest of the book should appear not as judgments on their enemies so much as judgments on themselves…. whether the visions bring consolation and encouragement or warning and painful challenge depends on which group of Christians depicted in the seven messages a reader belongs to.”
The Call to the Church: “Come Out!”
What does the call to “come out” mean for us?
- First, we need to love and worship God. We need to place God at the center of our lives rather than idols.
- Second, we need to become familiar with the characteristics of Babylon as identified throughout the Bible and discern the ways in which those characteristics manifest themselves in our society today.
- Third, we need to discern what being a witness for God and the Lamb looks like.
- Fourth, we need to live that out.
- I think we have our work cut out for us!
Whether we agree with him or not, Pablo Richard looks at the United States and gives his perspective on our nation. Fr. Richard is a Costa Rican priest and theologian. He writes,
Empire today is more dangerous than the Roman Empire of old, because for the first time in the history of humankind there is an empire capable of killing most of humanity and forever destroying our planet earth. Today’s empire is the empire of the total and absolute market, led by the government of the United States of America and all its political and military systems. The world looks in terror as this empire transforms itself into a Beast… We also discover the absolute power of the communication media, and all of the churches and ‘Christian’ theologians serving the Beast. This is the spiritual Beast seducing all people on earth…. The Apocalypse teaches us to resist and to defeat the Beast. It fills us with the hope of a possible new world: a society in which everyone has a place in harmony with each other and nature… The Apocalypse teaches us to build Christian communities in struggle against the Beast, against its false prophet, and against all those ‘Christian’ churches that dominate the world with the power of the Beast.
From my perspective, Fr. Richard paints an extremely complex set of systems (economic, political, military, international) in a black and white way. So I don’t find his words particularly helpful. But I do believe his perspective, as a voice of the oppressed (like martyred El Salvadorian priest Oscar Romero) is important for us to hear. Perhaps his perspective can motivate us to “get outside ourselves” as we engage in the important discernment process Revelation is calling us to do.
The Great Whore and the Beast
1Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgement of the great whore who is seated on many waters, 2with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” 3So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; 5and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.’ 6And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly amazed.
7But the angel said to me, “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
9”This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain for only a little while. 11As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
15 And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. 17For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
This passage feels confusing. There are many strange images and ideas that seem hard to understand. Once again, we must remember that this symbolic language is designed to hide from empire and reveal to those who are not caught up in the empire’s lies. Let’s unpack some of this imagery:
- The prostitute (whore) rides the beast (17:3, 7). In other words, this idolatrous lifestyle (that is, love of the stuff Rome provides) is made possible by Rome’s military power. Military power makes peace and prosperity (for some) possible. But over time, the beast turns against the prostitute and destroys her (17:16-17). The grasping, power hungry Roman government and the cost of the Roman legions drain and then compromise the prosperity in which idolatry thrives. It’s not long then before foreign military power weakens Rome itself.
- The message is this: powerful, idolatrous states look so impressive and attractive. How could what’s so attractive be anything but good? How could nations that are so powerful ever fall? One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls steps forward. We, therefore, expect judgment to follow. We are correct.
- The great prostitute sits on many waters. In other words, she has power over of many lands. She rules over “peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages” (17:15) and over “the kings of the earth” (17:18).
- These kings “commit adultery (with her) and the inhabitants of the earth are intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries” (17:2). Adultery, as in the prophets, is a symbol of all forms of idolatry (Ezekiel 16:15-36) including wealth, immorality, military power, cultural pride, and self-confidence (see the examples of Nineveh in Nahum 3:4; Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51; and Tyre in Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 27-28).
- The angel carried John to the desert wilderness (Rev 17:3). What is the meaning of the wilderness in the Bible? Prophets, like John the Baptist, know that the wilderness the best place to intentionally disengage from the seductions, immorality and violence of society and discern a God’s alternative perspective.
- The prostitute is dressed in clothes prostitutes wore in the ancient world (Jer 4:30, Prov 7:16-17). But her purple and scarlet clothes along with gold, precious stones and pearls represent Rome’s global, consumer economy as well as people’s appetite for the finer things of life.
- The great prostitute’s title begins with the word, “mystery.” In other words, her title is a symbol that needs to be explained. Starting in verse 7, the angel explains her title as a symbol of fallen, prideful, arrogant, oppressive human culture.
- John is astonished at the incredible power of the great prostitute and the beast. Their power is the power to seduce and trap people in idolatry and also the power to oppress. The angel responds by explaining the mystery of the prostitute and the beast and revealing their end. The angel begins with the beast. He is a counterfeit parody of the true and living God (17:8).
- The seven hills refer to the hills of the city of Rome. But the number seven also means complete and we know that the beast has been given authority to rule “every tribe and people and tongue and nation” (13:7). The beast controls four descriptors. The number four represents all the earth.
- The seven kings are the rulers of empires. Seven, the number meaning complete, represents here all empires in human history. The fact that five of these empires have fallen means the end of time is near but not yet. The church must continue to endure persecution and stand against idolatry.
- The beast “belongs to the seven” (17:11). In other words, in one characteristic or another, every world empire is another incarnation of the same satanic spirit. But at the end of time the beast will emerge from the abyss as the eighth king. And the war waged against the saints throughout history will escalate to full intensity in the final battle. That battle does not take place until 19:11-21 when Christ returns with the sword in his mouth. In other words, he will defeat the destroyers of the earth through his word (19:11-21; 1 Cor 15:24-26).
However, before we arrive at the last battle, there is a battle in chapter 17. In verse 12 we are introduced to 10 kings. We don’t know who these kings are, but we do know that they are “united in yielding their power and authority to the beast” (17:13). Their intent is to make war on the Lamb. But, as it turns out, they are also united in their hate for the whore.
16And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. 17For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (17:16-18).
Reflecting on these verses, Koester writes,
Conquering armies made cities desolate (eremoun) by destroying and pillaging. This is a reminder that the whore personifies a city, since the term “desolate” was not used for attacks against women…. The scene creates a striking reversal of imperial art that depicts Roman emperors overpowering foreign nations pictured as partially unclothed women here, the victim of imperial action is the beast’s own city….When extended to a fallen city, [the metaphor ‘devour her flesh’] indicates that all the city’s resources are seized by the attackers.
This desolation and devouring is exactly the Romans did to Jerusalem in 70 CE. And in ancient literature, Rome was known as the greatest of cities and the master of the world.
The Fall of Babylon
18After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. 2He called out with a mighty voice,
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling-place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.
3 For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”
The second angel illuminates the earth with his splendor. Using the words of the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 21:9), he announces that Babylon has fallen. Proud Babylon, the height of pagan human civilization, is now an uninhabitable ruin. Just as the prophets said (Isa 13:21-22; 34:11-15), only demons, unclean spirits and vultures live there (18:2). In its days of glory, it was filled with all the excessive luxuries of the world. But Babylon was, in fact, permeated with demons. And now, the lies inherent in Babylon are unveiled.
4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
“Come out of her, my people,
so that you do not take part in her sins,
and so that you do not share in her plagues;
5 for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
6 Render to her as she herself has rendered,
and repay her double for her deeds;
mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed.
7 As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously,
so give her a like measure of torment and grief.
Since in her heart she says,
‘I rule as a queen;
I am no widow,
and I will never see grief,’
8 therefore her plagues will come in a single day—
pestilence and mourning and famine—
and she will be burned with fire;
for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”
A third angel says, “Come out of her, my people.” This is the message that was given to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 and is given to all churches in all times. Christians are not to compromise with the idolatries, that is, the values, priorities and decision making of the world.
Babylon is characterized by self-centeredness and pride. She deludes herself into thinking she is sovereign (18:7). But the cost of Babylon’s luxury and power will fall back on her. She asserted her will over others and took whatever she wanted. Now she is paid back double for what she has done (18:6). “She will be consumed with fire for mighty is the Lord God who judges her” (18:8).
9 And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,
“Alas, alas, the great city,
Babylon, the mighty city!
For in one hour your judgement has come.”
11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more, 12cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, 13cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.
14 “The fruit for which your soul longed
has gone from you,
and all your dainties and your splendor
are lost to you,
never to be found again!”
15The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,
16 ‘Alas, alas, the great city,
clothed in fine linen,
in purple and scarlet,
adorned with gold,
with jewels, and with pearls!
17 For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!’
And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 18and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,
“What city was like the great city?”
19And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out,
“Alas, alas, the great city,
where all who had ships at sea
grew rich by her wealth!
For in one hour she has been laid waste.”
20 Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgement for you against her.
Just like Lot’s wife who looked back longingly at Sodom and Gomorrah, three groups of mourners see Babylon’s fall and long for the good old days. They weep and mourn and are terrified, but they don’t repent. It’s clear where their loyalties lie.
- First, the kings of the earth grieve the loss of the luxury and power Babylon gave them (18:9-10).
- Second, the merchants grieve the loss of luxurious, consumer imports that made them rich. The import list in verses 12-14 highlights the consumer materialism of the Roman elite: Gold and silver from Spain, jewels and pearls from India, textiles dyed purple and scarlet from Asia Minor, silk from China, ivory from North Africa and India, Moroccan wood, Corinthian bronze, Spanish ironwork, African marble, spices, incense and myrrh from Arabia and India, olive oil, wheat and wine from North Africa and Spain. John concludes this list with slaves. The luxuries of Babylon (in this case, Rome) “ride on” (Rev 17:7) a brutal commercial system that dehumanizes people, reducing them to commodities. The brute force of the Roman military expanding the resources of the empire and suppressing revolts is needed to supply the ceaseless cravings (18:16) of the harlot.
- Thirdly, the sea captains grieve because they have lost their lucrative business partner. They weep for their thriving business and bursting bank accounts. Clearly, Babylon enters and controls people through the portal of their self-centeredness.
But a fourth group, the saints and apostles and prophets in heaven, rejoice (18:20). At long last, martyrs’ blood is vindicated and evil is held accountable.
21 Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,
“With such violence Babylon the great city
will be thrown down,
and will be found no more;
22 and the sound of harpists and minstrels and of flautists and trumpeters
will be heard in you no more;
and an artisan of any trade
will be found in you no more;
and the sound of the millstone
will be heard in you no more;
23 and the light of a lamp
will shine in you no more;
and the voice of bridegroom and bride
will be heard in you no more;
for your merchants were the magnates of the earth,
and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.
24 And in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”
The strong angel appears, throws a milestone into the sea and announces that Babylon will be completely and permanently destroyed (18:21). The music of Babylon stops never to be heard again. Craftsmen are singled out. They will never to be found again (18:22). Perhaps this is a reference to the trade guilds, which so oppressed and seduced Christians as we saw in the letters to the seven churches. Then it’s lights out (18:23) for all time. No more marriages.
Then the angel discloses the ugly truth behind beautiful, fallen Babylon. Her splendor was purchased through deception, sorcery, and “the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth” (18:23-24).
God holds Babylon accountable for self-serving economic affluence, self-deceptive arrogance, plus brutal political and military power.
Three Reasons for the Fall of the Great Empire
Three reasons are given for the fall of Babylon at the end of chapter 18:
for your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery. 24And in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth (18:23b, 24).
Koester describes what these three reasons mean. He writes,
First, its merchants are called the aristocrats of the earth…. Aristocrats should exemplify the values of a society, but in Babylon that place of honor goes to merchants.… They purchase things only to sell them at a profit and are said to conceal the truth when marketing their wares to maximize their monetary advantage. Many readers would have agreed that portraying merchants as the aristocrats of a society was an indictment of that society.
Second, Babylon has deceived the nations with its sorcery. This charge is similar to the accusation that the city made the nations drunk on the wine of immorality, since wine and sorcery alter people’s perceptions. Sorcery was associated with the demonic realm, and its practitioners were seen as a threat to society… Here, sorcery is a metaphor for the way the great city bewitches people to deifying the ruler making the wealth and ostentation the highest goods, and treading violence against the faithful as a matter of indifference.
Third, in the city was found the blood of prophets, saints, and all who have been slaughtered on earth… Readers have been reminded about the deaths of Antipas and other Christian saints, but the judgment is extended to include “all” who have been slaughtered on earth.
John sees how the wealth of the few is paid for by the misery of the many, and how the security of some is obtained by the deaths of others.
What is John teaching us about assessing the empire we live in?
Rejoicing in Heaven
19After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,
Salvation and glory and power to our God,
2 for his judgements are true and just;
he has judged the great whore
who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
3Once more they said,
The smoke goes up from her for ever and ever.”
4And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshipped God who is seated on the throne, saying,
5 And from the throne came a voice saying,
“Praise our God,
all you his servants,
and all who fear him,
small and great.”
6Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder-peals, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
8 to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure” –
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” 10Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
Hallelujah, the Lord Reigns
The call for heaven to rejoice over the fall of Babylon (18:20) is heard. A great multitude in heaven roars, “Hallelujah!” (19:1,3,4,5,6). They praise God for His salvation, glory, power and just judgment.
The 24 elders and 4 living creatures who surround God’s throne (4:4,6) fall down and worship God (19:4). A voice from the throne summons the saints to worship and they respond with heartfelt, joyful worship (19:5). They respond that way because a wedding is about to take place. It is to be a wedding (a symbol of intimacy, love and joy) between Christ (the Lamb) and his people. They wear linen, which “stands for the righteous acts of the saints” (19:8). Quite a contrast to the self-serving idolatry of people who serve the great prostitute!
In the Bible, the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption is pictured as a feast overflowing with joy and rich food and drink (Isa 25:6-9; Luke 14:15-24). With Babylon destroyed, the wedding and the feast are about to take place.
John spontaneously responds by falling down to worship the messenger and is rebuked (19:10). Unlike the beast, the false prophet, the harlot, and the dragon who backs them all, this faithful servant of God will not allow any worshipping of himself, a creature, instead of the Creator.
The Appearing of Christ as Warrior King
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’.
Heaven stands open. God reveals his presence to the entire world. His Son appears on a white horse. White symbolizes both purity and victory. His name is faithful and true—the opposite of the blasphemous names of the Beast (13:1). Unlike earthly judges and earthly armies whose injustice leave innocent victims in their wake, Jesus judges and makes war with justice. His eyes of blazing fire see beyond appearances to the center of human hearts.
The dragon and the beast wore seven and ten crowns claiming full and complete authority for themselves while mocking God’s authority (12:3; 13;1). Christ wears many crowns as a sign of the full authority given to him by God the Father. His name is not fully known except to himself. In other words, no one can fully comprehend and, therefore, exercise authority over and defeat him. We know only what we need to know: He is faithful and true, and he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (19:16).
He wears a robe dipped in blood—a reminder that he is the Lamb who conquered through His suffering and death (Rev 5:9-14). Christ shed his blood for the people of every nation (5:9-10).
The armies of heaven follow Christ. But the focus is not on them. They don’t actually do anything. All focus is on Christ. He judges and makes war (19:11). He strikes down the nations with his sharp sword (19:15). And the sword he uses to win the battle against evil is not an AK-47, tanks, fighter jets, advanced technology or even nuclear weapons. The weapon – the sword that judges and defeats evil – is the Word of God. This power is just like the power we see in Genesis 1 and John 1.
This text is so countercultural. And it’s so easy to misunderstand. Below are several theologians and writers who have wrestled with (and sometimes first misinterpreted!) this text.
Richard B. Hays
Dr. Richard B. Haysis Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. He wrote the following about this passage in his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. It is his reflection on what he calls the Central Christological Metaphor of Revelation – the Lamb that was Slaughtered:
In Revelation 19:13, however, the rider’s robe is dipped in blood before the battle, and he is leading “the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure” (19:14). Thus, once again we are dealing with a dramatic symbolic reversal: the rider is the Lamb, and the blood with which he is stained is his own. He is called “the Word of God,” and the sword with which he strikes down the nations comes from his mouth. We are to understand that the execution of God’s judgment occurs through the proclamation of the Word. The message of the text is poignantly captured in the lines of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress”:
Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us,
We tremble not, unmoved we stand; they cannot overpower us.
This world’s prince may rage, in fierce war engage.
He is doomed to fail; God’s judgment must prevail!
One little word subdues him.
Hays summarizes the significance of this passage in this way:
A work that places the Lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praise and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion. God’s ultimate judgment of the wicked is, to be sure, inexorable. Those who destroy the earth will be destroyed (11:18); those who have shed the blood of the saints and prophets will find their own blood poured out on the earth. But these events are in the hands of God; they do not constitute a program for human military action. As a paradigm for the action of the faithful community, Jesus stands as the faithful witness who conquers through suffering.
Those who read the battle imagery of Revelation with a literalist bent fail to grasp the way in which the symbolic logic of the work as a whole dismantles the symbolism of violence. He perceptively describes the literary effect:
There is, of course, as has often been observed, something highly paradoxical about the picture of the Prince of Martyrs constituting himself the head of an army of conquest. It is an image which negates itself, canceling, rather than confirming, the significance of the political categories on which it draws.
Harry Maier’s reflection on Revelation 19:11-21 is profoundly important. On the surface, these verses appear to present Christ as a Roman Emperor (the word, “emperor,” is from Latin,imperator, which means,“commander”). Maier agues that this text is a “profound destabilization of such military ideal.” He writes,
John applies imperial imagery to describe the victorious battles over God’s enemies. Revelation 19:11-21—the proof text for the Battle Hymn of the Republic—offers a vision of apocalyptic destruction that draws from the combat imagery of the Hebrew Bible (especially Isaiah 63:1-6) depicting Yahweh as a mighty warrior victorious over Israel’s enemies. However, the warrior—astride a white horse with a red robe and captions of military might inscribed on his thigh and leading a host of finely dressed soldiers—is also recognizably Roman; this image draws upon the iconography associated with the military culture of imperial Rome.
At first glance, as the glorious strains of the famous Battle Hymn suggest, this is a vision of conquest and of a mighty emperor exercising vengeance over the wicked. But a closer look reveals a profound destabilization of such military ideals. The robe the rider wears is red not with the blood of enemies, but his own, shed on account of his faithful testimony…. The warrior lamb thus becomes a burlesque (parody) of imperial might and power and urges a reappraisal of what power is and where is resides.… And if it is a lamb dressed in warrior’s clothing who charges forth to slay by being slain, then what will count as dominion and victory in this world? If his army is comprised of the nonviolent who defeat evil by nothing other than word of mouth, how are we to measure power? If apocalypses offer visions of endings and new beginnings, what kind of ending and beginning is being offered here?
Maier notes how John weaves the Old Testament theme of the day of wrath with the New Testament theme of Christ who conquers evil by shedding his blood on a Roman cross. We see this enormous contradiction of power and weakness played out in this section of Revelation:
At 19:11-21, in the episode of the conqueror on the white horse, John develops a more formally military metaphor to describe divine victory over enemies.… Jesus, like the warring Yahweh/Israel of the Older Testament, vanquishes his enemies, assured of victory because of the righteousness of his cause against the beast and against his idolatrous followers (19:20-21).
At this point the image grows unstable. On the one hand, John heavily inscribes the rhetorical tropes associated with the divine holy war in the Apocalypse.… (But) if, on the one hand, John replays the cultural-linguistic code of domination, on the other hand he subverts it. He takes a reigning sociopolitical system that defines his daily existence and that of his audience and then teases it out of shape. The metaphor of a Lamb conquering a Beast is incongruous, shifting the Older Testament tradition of holy war in a new direction. At 19:13, the image of warring Yahweh is wholly inverted. The image of the rider’s robe dipped in blood begs the question, with whose blood is it spattered?
A final quote from Maier:
The Lamb here conquers, but in Revelation he always does so as slain Lamb. And where there is reference in the Apocalypse to having garments covered in blood, it is always the Lamb’s blood. Similarly, John links the metaphor of fine linen—white and pure clothing of the army following the warrior in 19:14—to the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:13-14; 22:14; see 3:4-5, 18; 19:8). All of this makes it probable that the blood covering the warrior’s robe in 19:14 is the Lamb’s blood. John thus destabilizes the Older Testament profile of a conquering divinity by insisting that, by the Lamb’s own suffering, he vanquishes his enemies.
The further reference to the two-edged sword, by means of which God’s enemies are slain, represents another inversion. Again, the metaphor belongs to the conquering-Yahweh portrait, and like Isaiah 63, found its way into messianic expectation. The Lamb’ssword, however, is his word of faithful testimony, a testimony that leads to death.
Revelation uniquely replays a violent Older Testament or more apocalyptic messianic motif of conquering divine warrior by inverting it with its references to the blood of the suffering Lamb and the sword of Jesus’ faithful testimony to death. Through ironic inversion and parody (conquering through defeat; slaying through testifying/dying), John turns the theological world he inherited inside out and initiates the most destabilizing of apocalyptic applications.
In addition to inverting theological notions of power and force inherited from Judaism, Revelation overturns imperial notions of military power and triumph. The white horse, the crowned rider, the inscription on the rider’s thigh, as well as the cavalcade of horses that follow him and possibly the red robe all mirror imperial notions of power. In particular, they echo iconography associated with Roman military triumph and/or imperial adventus, as well as pictures used to depict an emperor’s apotheosis. But again, John’s white rider is a Lamb in emperor’s clothing, and the former’s aping of imperial power in this way well expresses… irony and parody. The white rider’s many crowns parody those of the dragon (12:3). His violence replays that of the whore, the beast, and their allies (11:7; 12:17; 13:15; 17:6, 13), but with the inversion that not by slaying others, but by rather of being slain, do the Lamb and his white-robed followers triumph (Rev 7:10, 14; 11:7, 11-13; 12;5, 7-11; 14:2-5). The white rider/slain Lamb as imperial triumphator continues the rhetorical playfulness with imperial ideology that the throne-room vision initiated, and continues to co-opt notions of domination and might in order to subvert them… John’s Apocalypse leaves us unsettled by his destabilizing ironies, reaching for something secure to hold on to as he subverts prevailing notions of might and power, honor and prestige, victory and success, and so leaves the world turned inside out.”
Julia Ward Howe
At the beginning of the Civil War, people in the North like Julia Ward Howe were passionate about war as the strategy to end the evils of slavery. Julia Ward Howe lived in Boston. She and her husband were leaders in the movement to end slavery. In 1861, Julia Ward Howe traveled to Washington D.C. to visit Union soldiers stationed there. Here interaction with the soldiers on that visit inspired her to write the words that would become the unofficial marching song of the Union Army, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In the hymn, Howe links Revelation 19 with the American Civil War. Here are the first four verses:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospelwrit in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my condemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpentwith his heel,
Since God is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
But did Julia Ward Howe completely misunderstand Revelation 19? Years later, Julia Ward Howe knew the cost of war. 600,000 American soldiers were killed, countless were wounded. And many of the soldiers returned home with what was then called “Soldiers’ Heart.” Today we call it post-traumatic stress disorder. They were overwhelmed with despair. Many were jobless and homeless. The first “veterans’ homes” were established to support them. The war devastated cities, towns, farmland, forests, killed animals, and spread disease.
The woman who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861 invented Mother’s Day nine years later with this Proclamation:
Arise then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience.” We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm!”
Victory Over the Beast and Its Allies
17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in mid-heaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
Christ slays the kings of the earth and their armies—all those deluded by the beast (19:20)—with the sword of his Word (19:21). This group includes “all people, free and slave, small and great” (19:18).
Their leaders, beast and false prophet, are thrown into hell—the fiery lake of burning sulfur (19:20), an echo of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. Of course, we know from our study that the beast and false prophet represent oppressive political, economic, military, social and religious systems that control and violate people. John’s symbolism about hell means that these “destroyers of the earth” (Rev 11:18) will no longer exist.
Notice how quickly the last battle ends. The armies of heaven do nothing. Not exactly the Battle of Armageddon we see in the movies. One thinks of the multitude of times through history when people who claimed to be the armies of God set out to rid the world of God’s foes. What happened next is synonymous with the oppressive ways of the Roman Empire.
And yet the killing and dishonoring are certainly disturbing. Koester reflects:
The imagery is designed to be disturbing, in part because many of John’s earliest readers has been lulled into complacency. John does not want his readers to think that Christ’s death as a sacrificial Lamb was intended to placate the forces of sin and devil. The forces that are defeated in this battle are “the destroyers of the earth” (11:18). The allies of these destructive powers were repeatedly given opportunity repent, but at every turn they refused to do so (9:20-21; 16:9, 11). Revelation’s vision cycles show that Christ did not shed his blood to assure the allies of the beast that God would not interfere with their designs. Instead, Christ died to wrest people from the kingdom of sin so they might serve in the kingdom of God (1:5-6). Obedience to the Lamb means defiance of the beast—Revelation does not envision a neutral position—as long as the beast rages, the innocent suffer. The love of God and the justice of God converge by bringing the beast’s reign to an end (cf. Ps 9:8; 72:2; Isa 11:4).… Readers best respond to the vision in a manner that is consistent with the rest of Revelation, not by dismissing it or by assuming that they themselves are immune from judgment, but by heeding the warning and turning form the ways of the beast to the ways of God.
The Millennial Kingdom
20Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.
4 Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
In Revelation 12, Michael and the angels cast Satan out of heaven. He was no longer allowed to come before God and denounce the saints. On earth, Satan extends his domination through the beast, the false prophet and the prostitute. Now the prostitute is defeated, and the beast and the false prophet are in hell. The angel seizes Satan, binds him with a chain, throws him into the bottomless Abyss and locks the door. Earth is now freed from his deceiving presence for a thousand years (in Latin, a millennium).
It is important to remember that the Book of Revelation is a unique literary genre called apocalyptic. It is highly symbolic. Chances are good that places named cannot be located on Google maps and the times given are not intended to prompt us to check our calendars. Referring to these verses, Craig Koester writes,
The vivid images in this scene alert readers to the fact that John is using word pictures to describe things that do not neatly fit within the confines of space and time. Think first of all about the use of space in this vision. John understands Satan to be a real force that exerts its evil influence in the world, but he is not trying to persuade readers that Satan has the physical body of a dragon or that the dragon can be bound with a metal chain. John does not invite readers to speculate about exactly where on the globe the angel might capture Satan, or to wonder whether the door to the bottomless abyss is located in the northern or southern hemisphere. John uses physical and spatial images for spiritual realities.
Second, if the physical spaces in John’s vision point to spiritual realities, the same is true of the reference to time. John says that Satan is bound “for a thousand years” (20:2). Just as the door to the great abyss cannot be located on a map, the duration of the thousand years cannot be located on a calendar. One does not draw nearer to heaven by means of a space shuttle or nearer to the abyss by digging a shaft into the ground, and one does not enter the thousand-year period by turning a calendar page. John refers to time in order to point readers to a reality that lies beyond time… When John uses multiples of a “thousand” to identity the number of the redeemed in 7:4-8 (twelve thousand from each tribe, for a total of 144,000), he quickly alters the imagery in 7:9 to show that this same group actually consists of a multitude “that no one could count.” Similarly, John will use multiples of a “thousand” when stating the dimensions of the New Jerusalem (21:16)—not to tell readers how much square footage to expect in eternity, but to speak about its fullness and perfection. Fullness is what the ‘thousand years’ signifies in 20:1-7.
Where does this “fullness” of time take place? John does not give us a geographical location. Koester writes,
John does not actually say whether his vision of the thousand-year reign of the saints takes place on earth or in heaven, which is surprising given the usual assumptions that are made about this passage. On the one hand, he may well be speaking of a kingdom on earth, since the scenes that follow refer to the opponents of God coming from the four corners of the earth to attack the saints, and warn that fire will come down from heaven to destroy these enemies (20:7-10). On the other hand, the vision could refer to the heavenly kingdom, since John introduces it simply by saying that he “saw thrones,” and in previous visions the throne of God and the thrones of the twenty-four elders were said to be located in heaven (4:2, 4; 11:16). Therefore, the thrones in 20:4 might be heavenly as well. In either case, noting John’s vagueness about the location is a helpful way to check speculation about the nature of the millennial kingdom.
John speaks of the saints’ whereabouts in relational rather than in geographical terms. Each time we might expect him to say that they “reigned on earth,” he says that they “reigned with Christ” (20:4,6).… John is more concerned with “who” than with “where.”
And who “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev 20:4)? Koester says:
John’s prose is, again, remarkably vague on the point and most modern translations paraphrase the text to make it read more smoothly… When John spoke of “those who had been beheaded for their testimony,” he presumably referred to all martyrs, not only those who met their deaths in this particular way.… Jesus “conquered” by suffering death faithfully (5:6), and his followers also “conquer” by remaining faithful to the point of death (12:11); but faithfulness, rather than the manner of death, is the key point.
John draws a sharp contrast between those who are faithful witnesses (Greek, martus, or “martyr”) and those who wear the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast is a defining characteristic of empire, namely, the use of coercive power. Those who are faithful witnesses of the Lamb who was slain refuse to condone, be complicit with, or engage in the use of coercive power. To be witnesses, to stand as advocates for those who are oppressed invites criticism, ostracism, economic hardship, imprisonment and even death from the empire. But they trust that the ultimate outcome is in the hands of “the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (4:8). Or from another passage, in the hands of God and the Lamb who is worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:12). The faithful witnesses are the ones whose lives are vindicated. They are resurrected and reign with Christ for “a thousand years” (20:4).
This first resurrection is a powerful promise. Faithful witnesses may suffer persecution from the empire but their future in Christ is secure. Koester observes that, “Revelation is unique among New Testament writings in referring to resurrection in two phases. Its emphasis on the ‘first resurrection’ that brings both life and vindication offers incentive to readers to persevere in faith at all costs.”
The Final Conflict
7 When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. 9They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. 10And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
At the end of the millennium, Satan is released from his prison and gathers the nations of Gog and Magog to battle against God and His people. Gog and Magog are the names given to God’s final enemies in Ezekiel 38-39. Koester observes,
Satan has served a thousand year prison sentence with no time off for good behavior. But upon his release, he promptly resumes his former way of life by practicing deception and enticing the nations into opposing the people of God.… One wonders how anyone on earth would heed the Devil’s call after such a lengthy Satan-free period. John does not explain this, but lets readers live with the question. And perhaps a part of the vision’s function is precisely to evoke such astonishment. The passage offers a pointed commentary on the human condition by indicating that whenever Satan is active, some will indeed be responsive to him.… Restraining evil is not enough. Its seductive power must be brought to an end.… The intrusion of Gog and Magog is a disturbing reminder that security is not something that the people of God ever possess in themselves. Despite all that has occurred, they are not immune from attack and finally have no security except in God. Peace and salvation are his gifts.
John describes the faithful witnesses in two ways: as the city God loves and as the camp of the saints, because the church knows that the world under the influence of the dragon is not its final destination. As in chapter 19, as soon as the enemies gather (20:9), the battle is over (20:10). Fire, the sign of God’s judgment, comes down from heaven and devours them. Satan is cast into hell joining the beast and false prophet. The enemies of God’s creation are vanquished at last.
The Final Judgment
11 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
God now appears seated on his great white throne. As we’ve seen before, the throne symbolizes God’s power and authority. The color white symbolizes God’s purity. The earth and sky, despoiled by human sin, flee from the presence of the sovereign and Holy One. In the millennium, the faithful witnesses were resurrected. Now all the dead are resurrected to stand before God.
Koester writes, “The power of God is palpable in this scene. Heaven and earth flee from God’s presence. Death, Hades, and the sea, which hold the dead prior to this time, ‘give up the dead’ that are in them (20:12), as if surrendering them to God. The result is that all people, great and small, render an account to the Sovereign.” The judgment scene is similar to descriptions in Matthew 25:31-46, Daniel 7:9-10 and Psalms 7:6-8; 47:8-9.
Two books are opened—the book of life which is a record of names and the book that records each person’s deeds. Regarding the book of life Koester writes, “John has already said people are inscribed in this book ‘from the foundation of the world’ (13:8; 17:8), which means that they cannot obtain access to the book of life by their own efforts, but are included in the book as an act of divine grace.”And as we see throughout the Bible, God’s grace is available to all people. People simply need to be open to it.
The other book is a record of deeds. The question here is: do a person’s deeds reflect empire or the Lamb? Do a person’s actions reflect self-centered asserting power over others or being an advocate for those who are oppressed (as we hear from Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46)?
John is not teaching righteousness based on works. He is talking about fruit that reveals what’s in a person’s heart. A life based on acquiring is spent in asserting power over others to gain what one wants. A life based on grace is spent serving without being concerned about personal gain. Here we see God’s grace freely given AND human accountability. When we center our lives in God’s grace, we cannot help but express that grace in our actions. That’s not to say that anyone will be or is expected by God to be perfect. If that were the case, there would be no need for God’s grace. At the final judgment, God is simply looking for evidence that our lives reflect the grace of God and the Lamb.
After God’s judgment, two great enemies of human life, Death and Hades, are thrown into the lake of fire, as are the relentless, unrepentant oppressors. Koester writes,
The question is how one should take such threats. Warnings are not given to make people despair of grace, but to bring change and to avert disaster. John includes warnings in his book because he understands that the threat of divine judgment is real andbecause the hope of avoiding judgment is real. Earlier, we saw that the stark warning about fiery judgment in Revelation 14:9-11 was accompanied not by a call to despair, but by a call to faithfulness and a promise of blessing (14:12-13)… Warnings of judgment are designed to unsettle the readers while the promises of salvation and blessing are designed to encourage them. Together, they serve the same purpose, which is the readers’ perseverance in faith.”
The Rev. Fran Gardner-Smith and The Rev. Dr. David Smith
Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Yale University Press, 2014, 644.
Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation,Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001, 295.
New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume XII, “Revelation.” Revelation section written by Christopher C. Rowland (hereafter cited as Rowland), Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998, 676.
Tina Pippin, “The Heroine and the Whore: The Apocalypse of Johnin Feminist Perspective,” in From Every People and Nation, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, 137.
Wes Howard-Brook, Unveiling Empire, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999, 162.
Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999, 169-170.
Quoted in Howard-Brook and Gwyther, 178.
Pablo Richard, “Resistance, Hope, and Liberation in Central America,” in From Every People and Nation: The Book of Revelation in Intercultural Perspective, David Rhoads, ed., Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, 164.
Koester (2014), 680.
Koester (2014), 724-725.
Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, HarperOne, 1996, 174-175.
Luther c. 1529, emphasis Hays.
Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of the Book of Revelation”Tyndale Bulletin , 1986, 37:90.
Harry O. Maier, “Coming Out of Babylon” in From Every People and Nation, David Rhoads, ed., Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, 75.
Harry Maier, Apocalypse Recalled, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002, 187.
Maier (2002), 188-190.
Julia Ward Howe, from “Appeal to Womanhood throughout the world,” 1870, later known as The Mothers’ Day Proclamation. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother%27s_Day_Proclamationfor more information.
Craig R. Koester, (2001), 178-179.