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 all his subjects 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 and go back to Uruk times. A flaming monster with seven serpentine necks and tongues but leopard heads and body is depicted doing battle with a demigod on a seal from Mesopotamia dating to c. 2100 BC. Texts from Ugarit in northern Syria likewise describe the monster Litan (Leviathan) as having seven heads. In a myth about the origin of seasons, Baal, son of El (God), defeated the evil monster of the deep, but in revenge Mot, ‘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. Babylon’s god Marduk was another such figure. In these myths the crucial question was, “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), scaly amphibians were not entirely imaginary, and they 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, it was thought, could 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 John describes 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 great sea (Dan 7:2), that is, the open sea, be it the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean. 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: respectively Babylonia, Medo-Persia and Hellenistic Greece. Then came visions in which Daniel saw a beast not likened to any known beast of prey. It too symbolised a kingdom, and it had ten horns, specifically representing kings, as in John’s vision. Among them presently there arose 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 seems securely identifiable as the fourth beast. Daniel’s vision depicted the succession of empires as they impinged on Palestine, omitting the period after AD 135 when there were no Jews there. 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, which was also Christian, later fell piecemeal to crusading Muslims. Thereafter small numbers of Jews drifted back. Large-scale immigration did not take place until after 1920. According to the vision, Jews would be back in Palestine when the ten horns appeared.
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, which stretched from Greece to Afghanistan and south as far as Egypt, swallowing up the Chaldaean and Persian empires. Extensive though it was, this territory was considerably smaller than that controlled by the Roman Empire. Hence 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. There is also no implication that the beast’s territory necessarily embraces all the lands in Alexander’s empire. The significance of the bear-like feet and lion-like mouth is not obvious. Possibly the one suggests less mobility and the other that the beast is exceedingly boastful.
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: she is western Europe, Christian successor of the Roman Empire, but now apostate. 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 or 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 the Jews, 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 ‘was, and is not’. It is both the embodiment of successive imperial powers through the ages, as represented by the seven heads, and an eighth empire that will constitute the revival of the head that appears to have a fatal wound. It is also a man, embodying just 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. At his death, he was thrown into the abyss (Rev 11:7).
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. He is the end-time counterpart of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who ruled the countries known today as Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel-Palestine, Iraq and Iran, also Egypt for a time. As with all the countries of Alexander’s empire apart from Greece and Israel, they are dominantly Muslim, but politically they are not united.
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 provides 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 could mean the same here, with reference to the ten states that form a confederation or caliphate. Alternatively, the beast’s authority could be so great amidst the global chaos that it unifies all God-haters under his headship. Events will clarify one way or the other.
Like Antiochus and like emperors after him, the beast exalts himself (speaks great things, Dan 7:11, 11:36) and claims to be God in human form. He therefore blasphemes the name of Jesus. 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, less plausibly, towards the former site of the sanctuary on the Temple Mount. In the corresponding passage here, 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 (as in 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 when it says that ‘his works were finished’ from that juncture, were Genesis 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 extended and will extend to embrace all the dead back from the beginning (I Pet 3:18-20). Those whom he chose for adoption as his sons he chose ‘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), but 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. Only when he himself unsheathes his sword will the Jews 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 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. Many will be persuaded to disregard God’s second commandment and worship the beast’s image, just as Nebuchadrezzar, on pain of death, required ‘all peoples, nations and languages’ to worship his image (Dan 3:4-7). 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 venerate. Satan wants everyone to worship him, and they do that, ultimately, by abasing themselves before a visible image. God is indeed angry, the second beast tells them, 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 too 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, then let those in Judea flee to the hills. … 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 on the forehead). Whether this is what Revelation has in view remains to be seen. Certainly, increasing use of contactless payment systems hastens 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. In the West, financial institutions are already closing the accounts of organisations they disapprove of. Facilitated by individuals’ increasing willingness to cede autonomy as well as by technological advances, surveillance systems are growing ever more sophisticated, and 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 through 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 before 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 it 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.