The two beasts

Revelation chapter 13: the rise of a new caliphate

And I stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising from the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, and its feet like a bear’s, and its mouth like the mouth of a lion. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have been killed outright, but its fatal wound was healed, and the whole earth marvelled after the beast. And they worshipped the dragon, because he gave authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can war against it?”

The first sentence is the last of chapter 12 but belongs with chapter 13, an indication that the narrative continues. The appearance of the beast either follows or is concurrent with the Serpent’s persecution of those who hold the testimony of Jesus.

The sea from which it rises symbolises the nations (e.g. Ezek 26:3, 19). The second beast rises out of the earth. In other passages (10:5f, 12:12) sea and earth are coupled, so the distinction may not be significant; the point is that they come from below, not above. The imagery evokes Daniel’s vision of four ferocious beasts that come up from both sea and earth (Dan 7:2, 17). There they are said to represent kings, although the last one is a kingdom, out of which ten kings arise and then an eleventh. The first is like a lion, symbolising Nebuchadrezzar, the second like a bear, symbolising Cyrus, and the third like a leopard, symbolising Alexander. Then follows an interval in which Daniel sees nocturnal visions, culminating in a fourth beast that is ‘different from all the kingdoms’ and not likened to any known beast of prey.

The beast in Revelation evokes this fourth and is a composite of the other three: mainly like a leopard, but with feet like a bear’s and a mouth like a lion’s. It is terrifying in its violence, having claws of bronze and teeth like iron (Dan 7:19). With its teeth it devours and shatters the whole earth, and with its feet it stamps on what is left. In terms of geography its kingdom covers the territory once occupied by Alexander’s Hellenistic empire (from Greece to Afghanistan and south as far as Egypt, though not necessarily all this territory), plus Medo-Persia (Iran) and Iraq (Neo-Babylonia). The heads are a new element and explained later in Revelation (17:9-12):
The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain a little while. And the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet been given kingship, but they will receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast.

As the location of the woman, the ‘seven mountains’ can hardly be other than the seven hills of Rome. As part of the beast, the heads represent seven kings or kingdoms. The only clue to their identity is that the sixth is contemporary with John and the seventh lies in the future. From the perspective of nineteen centuries later, the reference must be to kingdoms (empires) rather than kings, for there have been numerous kings since John’s time. The sixth is therefore the Roman empire. Given that all prophecy is centred on God’s chosen people and the promised land, the seventh must be the Muslim empires that controlled Jerusalem after the Romans, from AD 637 to 1917.The Muslim empire created by Mohammed and as expanded under the Rashidun Caliphate Within a generation of Mohammed’s death, himself a great warrior, Muslims had conquered the same territory as that occupied by the Seleucid and Ptolemaic parts of Alexander’s empire, plus all of Arabia. Collectively, these caliphates were different from any previous empire because their desire for world domination was inspired by their religion rather than personal or national ambition, and that religion was monotheistic; with prophetic authority it taught that all the Earth should be brought by force under the rule of Allah, the god that had no son.

The beast in Revelation expresses the attributes particularly of its seventh head, which appears to have undergone a previous death, corresponding to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire – the last caliphate – in the First World War and its dismemberment under the Treaty of Sèvres. The rise of another caliphate in the future represents the healing of this death blow. As such it is an eighth king.

The beast is also the man at the head of this caliphate. The ten horns are the ten rulers making up the alliance. Daniel indicates that their leader will arise after the other ten and put down three of them (7:24); he does not at first have a territory of his own. In a later passage he is called ‘the king of the north’ (Dan 11:40), the end-time counterpart of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who desecrated Jerusalem’s temple, slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews, and ruled broadly the same territory as that represented by the leopard, lion and bear (Turkey, Syria-Palestine, Iraq and Iran). The three that are subjugated appear to be Egypt, Libya and Sudan (Dan 11:43).

The dragon is Satan, as we have seen in chapter 12. He is pictured there similarly, with seven heads and ten horns, but that the diadems diadems of the beast crown its heads rather than its horns, because the kings so represented have not yet come into being (Rev 17:12). If a man’s thoughts and desires align with his, Satan is quite capable of possessing him (John 13:27). So the individual beast and the Devil are virtually identical, and the whole earth marvels at the beast. Europe and the United States – the powers that dictated terms at the end of the First World War – have neither the will nor the ability to interfere, for their economies have been ruined by drought, famine and flooding (Rev 8:6-11).

And it was given a mouth uttering great and blasphemous words, and allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. And it opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his tabernacle, [that is,] those who sojourn in heaven. And it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation. And all the earth’s inhabitants will worship it, whose name has not been written in the book of life of the Lamb who was slaughtered before the foundation of the world.
If anyone has an ear, let him hear. If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword must he be killed. Herein lies the endurance and the faith of the saints.
The ‘saints’ or ‘holy ones’ are the Jews (OT passim), by virtue of God’s election. In the New Testament the term is extended to those who are sanctified by the blood of Christ. If John specifically means Christians, he clarifies: ‘those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.’ As foreseen by Daniel (Dan 7:21, 25), the beast wages war against the Jews in the land of Israel and conquers them, exercising authority over them for three and a half years. Like Antiochus, he exalts himself (speaks great words, Dan 7:11, 20) and blasphemes against God instead of blessing him (Rev 7:12). Paul, similarly, warns about ‘the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, making himself out to be God’ (II Thes 2:4).

Many readers have been misled into thinking that Jerusalem’s Temple will have been rebuilt by this time, but the temple referred to, as always in Revelation, is the dwelling place of God in heaven. In some places it is a metaphor for the body of Christ, i.e. all believers, comprising one body filled with his spirit (John 2:21, I Cor 3:16f, I Pet 2:5). Here John uses the word ‘tabernacle’ or ‘tent’, since those who dwell in heaven do so temporarily: they ‘camp’ or ‘tabernacle’ in it, until such time as Christ returns with the saints and ‘the dwelling place [tabernacle] of God is with man’ on earth (Rev 21:2-3).

To the modern reader ‘every tribe and people and language and nation’, like ‘all the inhabitant’s of the earth’, appears to indicate the whole world as we know it now. However, in related contexts the phrase means every people group within the empire, as in Daniel 2:38, 3:4, 6:25, 7:23. The idea that Revelation foresees a ‘world government’ is not supported.

‘The foundation of the world’ is the creation of the habitable world in six days, as Hebrews makes clear when it says that ‘his works were finished’ from that time (4:3). Some translations make the phrase ‘before the foundation of the world’ refer to the writing of one’s name in the book of life, contrary to the word order in the Greek. Strange though the notion may seem, John says that the Lamb was slaughtered ‘before the foundation of the world’ – i.e. his sacrifice was part of God’s plan from the beginning (Gen 3:15, Matt 25:34), and its actualisation at the end of the ages had effect back to the beginning (I Pet 3:18-20). Likewise, God chose us for adoption as his sons ‘before the foundation of the world’ (Eph 1:4, Rev 17:8); we were in Christ, the beginning of the creation of God, before we were born.

The Jews in the land will be taken captive (Isa 49:21, 52:2, Jer 30:6-8, Ezek 34:27, Joel 3:1-3, Zech 14:2), and they must try to accept it, in the knowledge that it will be very temporary. Some will be killed. Resistance will do no good.

And I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. And it performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people. And it deceives the inhabitants of the earth by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast, telling the inhabitants of the earth to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, [that is,] the name of the beast or the number of its name. Herein is wisdom. Let him who has understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.

If the first beast represents the military and political power of the caliphate, the second beast represents its religious power. It has two horns, possibly leaders of the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia – thus, a Grand Imam and a Grand Ayatollah. They promote worship of the caliph as ‘the Mahdi’, the one expected to bring justice on earth before the Day of Judgement. The New Testament takes a different view. In Paul’s words, ‘The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan, with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved’ (II Thes 2:9-10). “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24:24).

The preaching of the two witnesses during the same three and a half years is therefore not in a spiritual vacuum. The witnesses have power as great as that given to Moses and Elijah, including Elijah’s power to call down fire from heaven (I Ki 18:38, II Ki 1). But their counterparts have similar power, just as the sorcerers of Egypt were able to duplicate the plagues that Moses called down (e.g. Ex 7:11). As always, people must choose, and many will be deceived by their signs. Then comes a flagrant contravention of the second commandment. Just as Nebuchadrezzar required ‘all peoples, nations and languages’ to bow down and worship a golden image, on pain of death, so now does this latter-day potentate. The image is even endowed with breath, in contrast to the lifeless blocks of metal, wood and stone that men are accustomed to worship (Rev 9:20, Hab 2:19). Satan’s activity is truly supernatural. He wants all people to worship him, and they do that, ultimately, by abasing themselves before a visible image. Most Jews, one may suppose, will not bow down, even though death is the consequence. Even some Muslims will not, for their religion also forbids idol worship.

In 167 BC Antiochus caused desolation in Jerusalem by erecting an altar and/or image of Zeus in the Temple. The Romans never erected an ‘abomination of desolation’ in the topos agios, ‘holy area’ (Matt 24:15), and the term is distinct from the word used to designate the temple on the site, to hieron (Acts 21:28). The image erected for the beast, presumably on this same site, the Temple Mount, is the abomination equivalent to Antiochus’s at the time of the end. It is a sign of impending tribulation: “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not to be, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. … For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world.” (Matt 24:15, 21) The abomination comes, therefore, near the end of the 1260 days, which end with the killing of the two witnesses in Jerusalem and the 144,000 witnesses in the rest of the world. When John next looks, the 144,000 are on Mount Zion in heaven, redeemed from mankind as first-fruits of the harvest about to come.

The marking of the right hand or forehead conjures up the spectre of a cashless society in which transactions are effected through microchip implants. Indeed, the technology is already being adopted in some countries, slowly and for limited uses. Right-handed people receive the chip in (not on) their left hand; the forehead is not a favoured location. Whether this is what Revelation has in view remains to be seen. Increasing use of ‘contactless’ payment systems hastens on the day when cash will be abolished, regardless of whether microchips will constitute the fulfilment of this prophecy. The mark is the Satanic counterpart of the invisible seal that confirms that we are owned by God, namely the indwelling of his Holy Spirit (Ezek 9:4, Eph 4:30). People are advised on no account to accept the mark, whatever it is. Rather we should internalise his law (Deut 11:18f):
You shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

His words are more precious than gold. If parents do not pass the truth of a living faith to their children, their children will fall away.