Revelation 13: the rise of a new caliphate
The first sentence is the last of chapter 12 but it belongs with chapter 13, the two chapters being continuous. The beast appears at the same time as Satan persecutes those who hold the testimony of Jesus.
Composite beasts were not uncommon in ancient Mesopotamian iconography. A flaming monster with seven serpentine necks and heads doing battle with a demigod is depicted on a seal from Eshnunna in central Mesopotamia, dating to c. 2100 BC (Lewis 1996). Texts from ancient Ugarit in northern Syria describe the sea-monster Litan (= Leviathan) as likewise having seven heads: Baal, son of God, defeats the monster, but Mot, the god of the Underworld, defeats Baal, until Baal rises from the dead and defeats Mot. Marduk was represented on Babylon’s Gate of Ishtar as a snake-dragon with two horns, front legs like a lion’s and rear legs ending in claws. By that time (the 7th century BC) the dragon was seen more as a fearsome friend than an enemy.
Here the dragon and the composite beast are distinct but in league, and as at Babylon, the earth’s inhabitants worship them. The beast emerges from the sea, symbolising the nations (e.g. Ezek 26:3, 19). The imagery evokes Daniel’s vision of four ferocious beasts that come up from sea and land (Dan 7:2, 17). There they are said to represent kings, although the last one is a kingdom, out of which ten horns representing 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. As described in Daniel, 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 have a dual significance. As the location of the woman, they represent ‘seven mountains’, which can hardly be other than the seven hills of Rome, the interpretation traditionally given to them. As part of the beast, they 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 land of their inheritance, the seventh must be the Muslim empires that controlled Jerusalem after the Romans, from AD 637 to 1917. 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 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 Ottoman Empire – the last caliphate – was defeated in the First World War and dismembered in 1920 under the Treaty of Sèvres.
The beast is an eighth kingdom that represents the revival of one of the first five kingdoms, since at the time of writing it is no more (17:8, 11), the sixth is currently in power and the seventh kingdom is still to come. It is also the man at the head of this kingdom. This final kingdom is an alliance consisting of ten rulers, and Daniel indicates that their leader will come to power after the other ten and put down three of them (7:24); initially he does not 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 healing of his fatal wound may therefore be interpreted as a reference to Antiochus, who apparently comes back to life and displays the same murderous hatred of God and of his people as did his former incarnation in the 2nd century BC. Accordingly, Daniel 11:21-39 describes the career of Antiochus and Daniel 11:40-45 the career of the beast yet to come as if they were one and the same. The three rulers that are subjugated appear to be those of 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 the diadems of that 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. Britain, Russia and the United States – the powers that dictated terms at the end of the Second 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).
Many have been misled by this prophecy into thinking that Jerusalem’s Temple will have been rebuilt by this time, but the sanctuary referred to is the dwelling place of God in heaven. In some contexts naos 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 the word is ‘tabernacle’ or ‘tent’, since those who dwell in heaven do so temporarily: they sojourn 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 a modern reader ‘every tribe and people and language and nation’, like ‘all the inhabitants 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. In Revelation the context can be either the whole earth or the empire of the beast. In the author’s opinion the latter seems preferable (but we shall see). The idea that Revelation foresees a single ‘world government’ is not supported.
‘The foundation of the world’ is the creation of the habitable world in six days, as Hebrews confirms (were Genesis 2:2 itself not clear) when it says that ‘his works were finished’ from that time (4:3). Some translations reposition the phrase ‘before the foundation of the world’ so that it refers to the writing of one’s name in the book of life, contrary to the Greek order. John says that the sacrificial slaughter of the Lamb 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.
If the first beast represents the military and political power of the caliphate, the second beast represents its religious power. It rises out of the earth rather than the sea, suggesting that its power is chthonic. It has two horns, possibly symbolising the leaders of the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia – 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 messiahs 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 the 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. As always, people must choose, and many will be deceived by their signs and be persuaded to disregard the second commandment. Just as Nebuchadrezzar required ‘all peoples, nations and languages’ to bow down and worship a golden image, on pain of death (Dan 3:4-7), so does this latter-day potentate. Although the image is in one place, people can worship it simply by turning in its direction and prostrating oneself, wherever they are. It 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 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, who came later, never erected an ‘abomination of desolation’ in the topos hagios, the ‘holy area’ (Matt 24:15), let alone the temple building itself. The image erected for the beast, presumably on the so-called Temple Mount, which most authorities believe to be the holy area but actually was the site of Rome’s 10th legion (though it may overlap the temple site), 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 (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. … For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been the like since the beginning of creation.” (Mark 13:14, 19) The abomination comes 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 image is the Satanic counterpart of the image of God, the form in which God made himself visible to man and in whose form he created man. Hagar saw his form when she saw the ‘angel of Yahweh’ (Gen 16:7-14). Moses beheld his form (Num 12:8). Ezekiel saw it in his vision (Ezek 1:26). Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, so also at the resurrection we shall bear the image of the man of heaven (I Cor 15:49), for he is the image of the invisible God. So it is right to bow down and worship him (Matt 2:2, Rev 5:8). It is not right to worship the beast and its image.
To be clear: man’s body takes after God’s body, not an ape’s or that of an ancestor common to man and apes. In believing that man descends from other primates and they from flying lemurs and tree shrews, we are, in our hearts, bowing before the image of a beast. We are accepting a belief system that denies that man was in existence ‘from the beginning of creation’, that the original human form was that of God walking in the garden and that Christ, physically as well as spiritually, was fully human as well as fully God. In an effort to reconcile Scripture and Darwinism, theologians assert that ‘in the image of God’ is to be understood spiritually, but Genesis in the first chapter is speaking about the physical creation. Man is like the other animals only inasmuch as his body comes from the ground and God breathes into him, as into them (Gen 6:17, 7:22), the spirit that gives the body life. God’s animating spirit does not pass down through a man’s seed. In Darwinism there is no spirit, and no evolution of spirit. So it is with the new creation: ‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?’
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.