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, god of death and infertility, 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 question is always, “Who will go and slay the raging dragon? Who is to be king?”
Being among the animals created at the beginning (Gen 1:21), serpentine sea-monsters were not entirely imaginary. The association with evil arose from confusion with the 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 demonic 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.
Here the dragon and the seven-headed monster are distinct but in league. The monster 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, and the third like a leopard, symbolising Alexander’s empire: Babylonia, Medo-Persia and Hellenistic Greece respectively. Then followed an interval of nocturnal visions, culminating in a fourth beast that was ‘different from all the kingdoms’ and 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 founded by Alexander when, in 31 BC, Octavian conquered Ptolemaic Egypt at the battle of Actium, Palestine being then part of the Roman empire. Rome brutally destroyed what remained of the Jewish population and religion in Palestine in AD 135. The vision depicted the succession of empires as they impinged on the Jews in their homeland, omitting the period after AD 135 when they were all in exile. By implication, at least some Jews would be back in the land when the ten horns appeared.
The beast here 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). Since the Roman empire also included most of western Europe and all of north Africa, and did not include Iran, the territory so designated must be that of the final ten kings who are predicted to arise out of the final empire (Dan 7:24).
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 is centred on 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 inasmuch as their desire for world domination was inspired more by religion than 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 men 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). It is striking that all these countries of the Middle East and North Africa today are ruled by governments vehemently opposed to Israel.
The dragon is Satan. He is pictured similarly in chapter 12, with seven heads and ten horns, but there the diadems crown the heads rather than its horns, because the kings symbolised by the horns have not yet come into being. Here the 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 the disasters of the first trumpets. Strictly, the beast is a kingdom, but some of the description suggests a worshipped individual. No mere figurehead, in him is invested the whole power of the kingdom – ultimately, of Satan himself (Luke 4:6). Satan is quite capable of possessing a man whose thoughts and desires align with his (John 13:27).
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 the Temple or sanctuary (as per the ESV, NIV etc) but in its direction – whether that be toward the dwelling of God in heaven (Rev 11:19) or toward the former site of the sanctuary on the Temple Mount. Here God’s dwelling is equated with those who dwell with him in heaven: they sojourn (skenountas) in his ‘tabernacle’ or ‘tent’, skene, until such time as Christ returns with the saints, and ‘the skene 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 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. Perhaps the best known example is Paul’s statement that the gospel ‘has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven’ (Col 1:23, cf. John 12:32, Acts 2:5). 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). Hence the phrase here most probably indicates the empire of the beast (events will clarify one way or the other): the ten Middle Eastern states that form a confederation – presumably a caliphate – and invade Israel. 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 4:3 (were Genesis 2:2 itself not clear) confirms by saying that ‘his works were finished’ from that juncture. 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). Likewise God chose us for adoption as his sons ‘from the foundation of the world’ (Rev 17:8).
As we have seen, the Jews in the land will be taken captive (Isa 52:2, Jer 30:6-8, Ezek 34:27, Joel 3:1-3, Zech 14:2). They 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 killing with the sword (Matt 26:52). Being himself a captive, Jesus exemplified the best response.
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 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).
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 authority to call down fire (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. 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 venerate a golden image, on pain of death (Dan 3:4-7), so does this latter-day potentate. 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 (Rev 9:20, Hab 2:19). Satan wants all 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 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. “But 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.” (Matthew 24:15, Mark 13:19) ‘Abomination’ is circumlocution for a pagan god or statue (II Ki 23:13). The ‘holy area’ (topos hagios) designates the Temple Mount, not necessarily a building. The abomination 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, redeemed from mankind as first-fruits of the harvest about to come. The tribulation is the ensuing wrath of God.
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 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. Certainly, increasing use of ‘contactless’ payment systems hastens on the day when cash will be abolished, regardless of whether microchips will constitute the fulfilment of the prophecy. In the absence of cash, everyone becomes locked into digital banking, and that system can then dictate the terms on which it does business; anyone who does not subscribe to certain ‘values’ can be locked out. China is well on the way to becoming cashless, adding to its already formidable surveillance system the ability to track a person’s every transaction.
The image is the Satanic counterpart of the image 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 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. 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 or that of an ancestor common to man and apes. 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 spirit that gives the body 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. It 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.