Revelation 13. Detail regarding the power that occupies Israel for three and a half years. A second Antiochus will rise at the head of an alliance of Middle Eastern states and everyone under his rule will have to bow down before his statue.
The first sentence ends chapter 12, but more properly begins chapter 13. The appearance of the beast follows Satan’s going off to make war on those who have the testimony of Jesus (12:17).
Composite beasts were not uncommon in ancient Mesopotamian iconography. A flaming monster with seven serpentine necks and heads is depicted doing battle with a demigod on a seal from central Mesopotamia dating to c. 2100 BC (Lewis 1996). Texts from Ugarit in northern Syria describe the sea-monster Litan (Leviathan) as likewise having seven heads. In a myth about the origin of seasons the rain-god Baal defeated the evil monster of the deep, but in revenge Mot, or ‘Death’, swallowed Baal into the maw of the underworld and thereby caused drought in the land, until Baal’s sister brought him back up and fruitfulness was restored. In these myths the crucial question is, “Who will go and slay the dragon? Who is to be king?”
Being among the animals created at the beginning (the tanninim of Gen 1:21), serpentine sea-monsters were not entirely imaginary and featured in various myths. Their association with the demonic derived from the tradition about a legged serpent in the primeval garden. Babylon’s Gate of Ishtar was decorated with images of a venomous composite beast with two horns, front legs like a lion’s and rear legs ending in talons. The images made visible a spirit whose power to harm could, it was thought, be invoked against the city’s enemies. The belief that morally ambiguous, potentially maleficent spirits could be controlled for good lay at the heart of pagan worship. They were real, and we have seen composite beasts issuing from the abyss during the fifth and sixth trumpets.
Although it has heads and horns like the dragon, the beast is distinct from it, and evokes the four ferocious beasts that Daniel saw coming up from the sea (Dan 7:2). In Daniel’s vision the beasts represented kings, and hence the kingdoms which they embodied. The first was like a lion, symbolising Nebuchadrezzar’s empire, the second like a bear, symbolising Cyrus’s empire, the third like a leopard, symbolising Alexander’s empire: Babylonia, Medo-Persia and Hellenistic Greece respectively. Then came visions in which Daniel saw a fourth beast that was not likened to any known beast of prey. Out of this kingdom arose ten horns specifically representing kings (as in John’s vision) and presently an eleventh horn.
The fourth beast was terrifying in its violence, with claws of bronze and teeth like iron; it devoured and crushed the whole land, trampling the remnant with its feet. Historically, Rome superseded the Hellenistic empire when Octavian conquered Ptolemaic Egypt at the battle of Actium, in 31 BC. Palestine was then one of Rome’s dominions. Rome brutally destroyed what remained of the Jewish population and religion there in AD 135. It therefore is securely identified with the fourth beast. Daniel’s vision depicted the succession of empires as they impinged on their homeland, omitting the period after AD 135 when there were no Jews in Palestine. In the 5th century, the western half of the Roman empire disintegrated and converted to Christianity, losing its beast-like quality, and most of its eastern half subsequently fell to invading Muslims. Thereafter small numbers of Jews drifted back, but large-scale immigration did not take place until after 1920. According to the vision correspondingly, when the ten horns appeared Jews would be back in Palestine.
The beast in Revelation 13 is a composite of the first three beasts in Daniel: mainly like a leopard, but with feet like a bear’s and mouth like a lion’s. In terms of geography its kingdom is therefore the territory once occupied by Alexander’s empire (from Greece to Afghanistan and south as far as Egypt, though not necessarily all these lands), plus Iran (Medo-Persia) and Iraq (Babylonia). Although extensive, this territory is considerably smaller than the territory controlled by the Roman Empire. Thus if the Roman empire is correctly identified as the fourth beast in Daniel’s vision, the ten kings must be understood as arising from it after its demise.
The heads have a dual significance. As the location of the woman, they represent ‘seven mountains’, which can hardly be other than the well-known seven hills of Rome, in line with the traditional interpretation. 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 the prophecy relates to God’s elect, the seventh must be the Muslim empire, a succession of caliphates that controlled Jerusalem after the Romans, from AD 637 to 1099 and again from 1187 to 1917. Within a generation of Mohammed’s death, himself a great warrior, Muslims had conquered the same territory as that once occupied by the Seleucid and Ptolemaic parts of Alexander’s empire, plus all of Arabia. Collectively, these caliphates differed from previous empires in that their desire for world domination was inspired as much by religion as by 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 dominion of the one God Allah, and that Allah had no son. Muhammad, not Jesus, brought the final revelation of God. God had abrogated his purposes for Israel in order to found the Ummah, not the Church, and was to be worshipped at Mecca, not Jerusalem. 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 both the embodiment of successive imperial powers through the ages, as represented by the seven heads, and the embodiment of an eighth empire that will constitute the revival of the head that appears to have a fatal wound. At the time that John writes, the sixth is currently in power and the seventh is still to come. The beast is also a man, embodying the eighth empire. As such, he appears to be the reincarnation of an earlier king, who when alive was head of one of the empires before the sixth.
The eighth empire is an alliance of ten rulers. 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 ruled broadly the same territory as that represented by the leopard, lion and bear (Turkey, Syria-Palestine, Iraq and Iran). The beast displays the same hatred of God’s people as Antiochus did. Indeed Daniel 11:21-45 describes the career of Antiochus and that of the ‘king of the north’ as if the two were the same, whereas in fact a large time gap separates verse 39 from verse 40. The three rulers that are subjugated appear to be those of Egypt, Libya and Sudan (Dan 11:43).
The dragon is Satan. He is pictured in chapter 12 with the same number of heads and horns as the beast, but there the diadems crown the heads rather than the horns, because the kings symbolised by the horns have not yet come into being. Strictly, the beast is a kingdom, but some of the description suggests a worshipped individual. No mere figurehead, this head of state is invested the whole power of the kingdom, and that power comes from Satan himself (cf. Luke 4:6), Satan being quite capable of possessing a man whose thoughts and desires align with his (John 13:27).
To a modern reader ‘every tribe and people and language and nation’, like ‘all the inhabitants of the earth’, appears to mean literally the whole world, as it does in other parts of Revelation. However, ‘all’ and ‘every’ are sometimes used in contexts where a modern reader would want a less absolute phrase, as in Paul’s statement that the gospel ‘has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven’ (Col 1:23, cf. Luke 2:1, John 12:32, Acts 2:5, 11:28). In Daniel, which is the most relevant analogue, ‘all peoples, nations and languages that dwell on all the earth’ means every people group within the empire (6:25). The phrase probably means the same here, with reference to the ten Middle Eastern states that form a confederation or caliphate. Events will clarify one way or the other.
Like Antiochus, the beast exalts himself (speaks great things, Dan 7:11, 11:36) and reviles God. He says to himself, “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High” (Isa 14:14). Similarly, Paul warns about ‘the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of veneration, so that he sits towards [eis] the sanctuary of God, demonstrating that he himself is divine’ (II Thes 2:4). Many have inferred from this that Jerusalem’s Temple will have been rebuilt by this time, but Paul’s prophecy (obscure though it is) says that he seats himself not in (en) the Temple or sanctuary but in its direction – whether that be towards the sanctuary of God in heaven (Rev 11:19) or towards the former site of the sanctuary on the Temple Mount. Significantly, in the corresponding passage in Revelation, chapter 13, the word used is not ‘sanctuary’, but ‘tabernacle’ or ‘tent’ (skene). God’s dwelling is equated with those who, although they have not yet risen, spiritually sojourn (skenountas) with him, contrasted again (Rev 12:12) with those who dwell on earth.
‘The foundation of the world’ is the creation of the world in six days, as Hebrews confirms by saying that ‘his works were finished’ from that juncture (were Gen 2:2 itself not clear). Some translations reposition the phrase from 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 word order. 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 from the beginning (I Pet 3:18-20). God chose us for adoption as his sons ‘from the foundation of the world’ (Rev 17:8).
The beast is given power by the dragon, but that power is not unlimited, as the phrase ‘it was given’ insistently emphasises (6 times in this chapter). When their land is taken, the Jews must try to accept it, in the knowledge that it will not last long; they should not repay violence with violence. The words echo Jeremiah’s when he prophesied that his compatriots would go into exile (Jer 15:2, 43:11), only without the note of judgement. His warning about dying by the sword is modified so that it echoes Jesus’s warning about not resorting to the sword (Matt 26:52). Jesus was once taken captive himself and modelled the best response. Soon he will wield his sword, and then the Jews will be free to retaliate.
If the first beast represents the military power of the caliphate, the second represents its religious power. It rises out of the earth, suggesting that its power is chthonic. Possibly its two horns symbolise the leaders of the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia – thus a Grand Imam and a Grand Ayatollah. Putting aside their long-standing differences, they promote worship of the caliph as ‘the Mahdi’, the one expected to bring justice on earth before the Day of Judgement. He may even be reported to have been killed and to have risen from the dead. 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). Jesus spoke in the same terms: “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). Even when done in his name, signs and wonders by themselves are not proof of God’s approval (Deut 13:1-3, Matt 7:22).
The preaching of the two witnesses during the same three and a half years is therefore not in a spiritual vacuum. Like the sorcerers of Egypt, the second beast also has supernatural power. The descent of fire is presumably lightning (cf. I Ki 18:38, II Ki 1) rather than a superflare from the Sun. Many will be deceived by the signs and persuaded to disregard God’s second commandment. Just as Nebuchadrezzar required ‘all peoples, nations and languages’ to venerate a golden image, on pain of death (Dan 3:4-7), so does the beast. Although the statue is in one place, people can worship it simply by turning in its direction and bowing down, wherever they are. It is even endowed with breath or spirit (same word, pneuma), in contrast to the lifeless artefacts people are accustomed to worship. Satan wants everyone to worship him, and they do that, ultimately, by abasing themselves before a visible image. God is indeed angry, they are told, and this is the way to placate him. Most Jews – those remaining in the land – 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 identifying Yahweh with Zeus and sacrificing a pig in the Temple. Daniel foretold a provocation at the end of the age similar to Antiochus’s (Dan 9:27), as did Jesus, citing Daniel. “When you see the abomination of desolation standing in the holy area (let the reader understand), then let those in Judea flee to the mountains. … For then there will be tribulation such as has not been the like since the beginning of creation.” (Matt 24:15, Mark 13:19) The ‘holy area’ (topos hagios) designates the Temple Mount, not necessarily a building. ‘Abomination’ is circumlocution for the cult of an idol (II Ki 23:13). It comes near the end of the 1260 days, which conclude 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. The ‘tribulation’ is the ensuing wrath of God.
With so much agricultural production destroyed, food will be in short supply and will need to be rationed. The marking of the right hand or forehead conjures up the spectre of a cashless society in which the right hand or forehead is implanted with a microchip. The technology is already being adopted in some for limited uses. Right-handed people receive the chip in (not on) their left hand (and not the forehead). Whether this is what Revelation has in view remains to be seen. Certainly, increasing use of contactless payment systems hastens on the day when cash will be abolished. In the absence of cash, everyone becomes locked into digital banking, and that system can then dictate the terms on which it is accessed; anyone who does not subscribe to certain ‘values’ can be locked out. China is already a cashless society, and since most transactions are by mobile phone, it tracks those transactions, adding to its already formidable surveillance system. Driven by individuals’ increasing willingness to cede autonomy as well as by technological advances, totalitarianism – the total control of speech and behaviour by a godlike State – is becoming the norm. One cannot say with confidence that the totalitarianism depicted in Revelation will be restricted to the Middle East.
The statue is the Satanic counterpart of the image in which God has always made himself visible. Hagar saw his form when she saw the ‘angel of Yahweh’ (Gen 16:7-14). In conversing with him, Moses regularly 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 at the resurrection we shall bear the image of the man of heaven (I Cor 15:49). Therefore it is right to bow down and worship him (Matt 2:2, Rev 5:8). It is not right to worship any other man or his image.
To be clear: man’s body takes after God’s body, not an ape’s. In believing that man descends from other primates and primates from flying lemurs and tree shrews, we are bowing, spiritually, 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 the incarnate Son was fully human as well as fully God. Man is like the other animals only inasmuch as his body comes from the ground and God breathes into him as into them the breath that gives it life (Gen 6:17, 7:22). God’s animating spirit does not pass down through the genes and is not a product of evolution; it comes to an individual directly. In Darwinism there is no spirit. The theory does not begin to account for life.
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.