IBRI Research Report #24 (1985)
Copyright © 1985 by Robert C. Newman. All
|Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written.|
The book of Revelation is probably the most perplexing and difficult work in the whole canon of Scripture. Even ignoring those interpretations which reject its inspiration, there are still a larger number of really different interpretations for this book than for any other in the Bible. Some see its overall fulfillment mostly in the first centuries of the Christian era; others, mostly near the end. Still others see the events described happening throughout church history; yet others deny the visions correspond with specific historical events at all.
In regard to details the same interpretive variety is seen. The "millennium" of Revelation 20 is placed in the future by some and in the present by others. For some it comes before Christ's return, but others put it after. We should not be surprised by divergences in explaining such mysteries as the name of the beast, apparently coded by the number 666; or the identity of the harlot, a city on seven hills with the name of the ancient flatland city of Babylon. Nor, perhaps, should we be alarmed that the "locusts" of chapter 9 have been interpreted historically as the Turks, supernaturally as demons, and technologically as helicopter gunships! Of more concern is the fact that the "angels" of the seven churches have been seen as angels, human messengers, pastors, bishops and even the "spiritual realities" of the churches themselves. Still worse, the rider of the first horse in chapter 6 has been interpreted as diversely as Christ and Antichrist. If we can't tell the good guys from the bad guys, we really are in trouble!
In view of such diversity, one is tempted to give up in despair or disgust and turn to more worthwhile pursuits. Yet if we accept the Bible as God's word and Revelation as a part of that Bible, then this response is inconsistent with our profession and with God's revealed nature as the One who has made all Scripture profitable. In addition, Revelation promises a blessing (1:3) for all who will read and obey it -- perhaps because God knew we would be tempted to quit.
But how can be obey it if we don't understand it? How, for instance, can we avoid "the mark of the beast" if we don't know what it is? Could it be Sunday observance (as Seventh-Day Adventists claim), or use of credit cards, or membership in the World Council of Churches, or an international computer identification code?
Doubtless, some of the book is not going to be understood until it happens. And anything we have to know in Scripture is sufficiently clear (or will be, when the time comes). Biblical Christianity, after all, is not a puzzle to be solved or a cult for the clever; it is a Redeemer to be trusted and a life to be lived.
Still, the task of understanding Revelation is not to be ignored. Paul spent only a few weeks planting the church in Thessalonica, yet he still took time to teach them eschatology. We are nearer the end than they were, so the subject can hardly be less important for us.
But how do we begin? If we start with the wrong system of interpretation, we might never break free of it to understand what the book is really about. Rather than taking a chance on guessing the right system and getting into it from the start, we should use some sort of inductive approach which is flexible enough that our misconceptions may be corrected as we study. Even our hermeneutical principles should be open to revision as our study of the book progresses.
One approach to Revelation which has promise along these lines is the comparison of Scripture with Scripture -- of one part of Revelation with another, and with other parts of the Bible. This technique seems to be commended frequently in Scripture itself, e.g., Ps 119:97-100; John 5:39; Acts 17:11; 2 Tim 3:15-16. But what Scriptures do we compare with Revelation, since we could easily go astray by equating passages which are actually unrey to approach the book would be to collect as many such references as possible for each passage and then examine each one carefully to see if it can shed light on the passage. This is what we propose to do here.
Unfortunately, such a study for the whole book of Revelation could easily take years. In this paper (due in just a few weeks) we shall make a start on such a project by examining only one connected passage, namely Rev 19:11-21. We shall seek to locate parallel materials in the OT, elsewhere in Revelation, and elsewhere in the NT, discussing those which seem to have some relevance and trying to understand our chosen passage thereby.
Why did we choose Rev 19:11-21? Primarily because it narrates the second coming of Christ, a central theme of Revelation and of eschatology as a whole. Also the passage has a substantial number of cross references, according to my count of UBS footnotes (two per verse, slightly above the book average of 1.8). In addition, the passage impinges on the millennial question without being wholly taken up with such.
Our format will be to move through the passage verse-by-verse, noting parallel passages and discussing each, seeking to draw things together at the end. In the commentary which follows, I will use my own rather literalistic translation. A chart of parallel passages is given in an appendix for reference.
|(11) AND I SAW HEAVEN STANDING OPEN, AND BEHOLD! A WHITE
WHO SAT UPON IT WAS CALLED FAITHFUL AND TRUE, AND IN RIGHTEOUSNESS HE
JUDGES AND WAGES WAR.
The form "I saw" is extremely common in Revelation, far too frequent to be a divider of major structures. It is probably to be read naturally as a reminder that John actually saw these things, even though he was "in the Spirit," that is, having a vision of some sort.
The reference to "heaven opened" is somewhat like Rev 4:1, though there a door is opened to admit John to heaven, whereas here heaven is opened to let Christ and his armies come to earth. Clearer parallels are thus found in the descent of the Spirit as a dove at Jesus' baptism (Matt 3:16), and of the sheet in Peter's vision (Acts 10:11). The idea of God intervening into human affairs seems to be the emphasis.
The "white horse" finds its closest verbal parallel in Rev 6:1, but the meaning of that passage is more disputed than this one is. Here the rider is clearly identified (though not by name) as Jesus Christ. Consequently our passage sheds light on 6:1 rather than vice versa.
The color white is frequently used in Revelation. Where its significance is discernable, it seems to symbolize righteousness or purity (see esp. Rev 3:4,5,18; 7:13-14). The OT background for white garments also includes the idea of purity as one possible meaning (Isa 1:18). White horse occur twice in the visions of Zechariah (1:8; 6:3,8), but they are grouped with horses of other colors and no point is made of the color differences.
The phrase "one who sits upon" is used frequently in Revelation for God the Father and occasionally for Christ. The object is regularly the throne, a standard symbol for rule, rather than a horse as here. In antiquity, the horse was not used in agriculture, nor as the common means of transportation, but principally for warfare. As the context goes on to show, Christ is here coming to wage war.
The epithet "faithful and true" has been used already in Rev 3:14 to describe Jesus' testimony, presumably during his earthly ministry. Here, by contrast, the phrase seems to refer to his promise-keeping and righteousness as he comes to avenge and deliver.
Though we shall later see thrones set up (20:4) and judgment pronounced (20:11-15), it is probably better in this context to think of judging as avenging.
Numerous OT passages speak of the Lord coming "to judge the world in righteousness" (e.g., Ps 9:8; 96:12; 98:9). The "shoot from the stem of Jesse" will also judge righteously, according to Isa 11:4, a context of deliverance and vengeance which has several parallels with our own, as we shall see below. A similar context in Zech 14:3 speaks of the LORD going out to fight the nations "as in a day of battle."
|(12) NOW HIS EYES WERE A FLAME OF FIRE, AND UPON HIS HEAD
CROWNS, AND HE HAD A NAME WRITTEN WHICH NO ONE KNEW EXCEPT HIMSELF.
The reference to Jesus' eyes is paralleled in the opening Christophany of Rev 1:14. It is apparently explained in 2:18,23 as depicting his ability to search the hearts. The closest verbal parallel in the OT is the angelic description of Dan 10:6. While this may be a theophany, the figure is probably only an angel since he is helped by Michael in 10:13. In view of John's two attempts to worship angels (Rev 19:10; 22:8), it is not unreasonable to suggest that their physical appearance is overwhelming.
Less parallel verbally but probably closer in content is Isa 11:3-4. Here the prophet seems to be saying that the Messiah will not be deceived by appearance or hearsay, but he will judge rightly. This seems to be the thought of Rev 2:23, above.
The "many diadems" of Christ may be contrasted with the dragon's seven (Rev 12:3) and the beast's ten (13:1). In our own context, Christ will later be called "King of kings and Lord of lords." As he rules over other crowned persons, he effectively has many crowns himself. Satan's offer to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world (Matt 4:8-9) has been rejected. Now the Father has given him these kingdoms (Ps 2:6-9; Dan 7:13-14, perhaps this is the significance of the seven-sealed book of Revelation 5) and he is coming to take possession.
We are not told where Christ's "name" is written, but the context suggests either on his head or his diadems. The former would parallel the beast and the harlot, both of which have names on their heads (13:1; 17:3). As their names seem to characterize them, so perhaps does Christ's name characterize him.
What does it mean that no one knows the name except himself? Obviously this ignorance could not include God. A similar mysterious name is given those who conquer in Rev 2:17, but that is not explained either. Perhaps the idea is that the name is now unknown, but it will be revealed at his coming. That idea would fit the unknown time of the Lord's return (Mark 13:32) and probably the mysterious utterance of the seven thunders (Rev 10:4) and the secrets of paradise which Paul could not reveal (2 Cor 12:4). In this case, 1 Cor 2:9 would summarize the basic idea: the eschaton will be beyond present experience or imagination.
Another possibility is that Jesus (being God) is so far above us that we cannot ever fully know him. Paul speaks of Christ being given the "name above every name" (Php 2:9-10). The angelic theophany announcing Samson's birth (Jdg 13:21-22) says his name is "wonderful" or "incomprehensible" (13:18); the same epithet is applied to the Messiah in Isa 9:6. In either case, Revelation reminds us that we don't know it all.
|(13) AND HE WAS DRESSED IN A GARMENT DIPPED IN BLOOD, AND HIS
WAS CALLED "THE WORD OF GOD."
The manuscripts of Revelation differ on whether Christ's garment is "dipped (dyed)" or "sprinkled" with blood. In the latter case an allusion to atonement might be involved (cp Ex 24:8; Lev 16:14-15). In either case the allusion to Isa 63:1-3 (where both ideas occur) is unmistakable. The passage is striking in that God appears to be the speaker (vv 5-6) and Revelation applies it to Jesus. The parallels between the two passages are substantial: both picture the day of God's wrath and redemption; both mention the actor's righteousness; both use a winepress analogy; both picture the actor as doing all the avenging by himself.
Yet in Isa 63 the speaker's robe is bloody because he has (already) trampled his foes; it is their blood which stains his robe. In our passage, it appears that Christ has not yet trampled them, as that is what he is coming to do. Is the color of the robe symbolic of what it is about to do, or could it be Christ's own blood which colors his robe? If the latter is the case, then perhaps a parallel is also being made with the saints: their robes have been made white in his blood (Rev 7:13), but he has bloodied his garments in cleansing theirs! Some combination of these two ideas would not be out of place in a passage on both deliverance and vengeance.
Only here and in John's Gospel do we have unmistakable references to Jesus as the "Word of God." John 1:14,18 gives what seems nearest to an explanation of this term: Jesus is the one who explains God. I suggest a human analogy here. Just as no one knows what another is thinking unless the other reveal it, so with God. As our word reveals us to others, so God's word reveals God to mankind. Jesus is the epistemological mediator between God and man.
In addition, the close connection between the Word and creation in John 1:1-5 reminds us of the Genesis refrain "and God said." Jesus is the ontological mediator between God and creation. Thus we can combine these ideas under the category "mediator." Jesus is God's mediator in creation, revelation and now, in Revelation 19, in judgment. With a word he will slay God's enemies, pronounce judgment, condemn or vindicate.
|(14) AND THE ARMIES [THAT ARE] IN HEAVEN FOLLOWED HIM ON
BEING DRESSED IN PURE WHITE LINEN.
On several occasions the coming of the Lord is described as accompanied by "the holy ones." Zech 14:5 is clearly eschatological, with a context of vast geological and astronomical events (14:6,7,8,10), the LORD becoming king over all the earth (14:9), the destruction of enemies (14:12-15) and apparently the rescue of his people (14:1,11,14). So presumably is Jude 14-15, though the aorist must then be understood as a translation equivalent of the Hebrew prophetic perfect. Less certain is Deut 33:2-3, where the LORD comes from Sinai, Seir and Paran. This is somewhat reminiscent of Isa 63:1, where the speaker comes from Edom, but in Deuteronomy the context rather suggests the theophany at Sinai. It may be a source of the NT and rabbinic picture of the Law being mediated through angels (Acts 7:53; Heb 2:2).
Who are the armies? The phrase "armies of heaven" seems to be most commonly used in the OT for stars (e.g., Deut 4:19; Ps 33:6), but sometimes clearly for angels (1 Kings 22:19; Neh 9:6), and there are many passages where it is unclear which of the two is intended (e.g., Isa 34:4; Dan 8:10-11). I know of no examples where humans are included. Yet Paul speaks of Jesus "bringing with him" believers who have died (1 Thess 4:14) and Rev 2:27 indicates that believers will take part in shattering the nations.
White horses and white garments have already been discussed above (verse 11).
|(15) AND FROM HIS MOUTH A SHARP SWORD GOES FORTH, THAT WITH
MIGHT STRIKE THE NATIONS, AND HE HIMSELF WILL SHEPHERD THEM WITH A
ROD OF IRON, AND HE HIMSELF WILL TREAD THE WINEPRESS OF THE WINE OF
THE WRATH OF THE ANGER OF GOD THE ALMIGHTY.
Here Christ is pictured rather grotesquely with a sword coming from his mouth. This picture, presented previously in Rev 1:16 and 2:12,16, seems to demand a figurative interpretation, as does the "Lamb standing as if slain" of Rev. 5:6.
The figure of God's word as a sword appears in Heb 4:12 and Eph 6:17. The destructive power of even the human tongue is so pictured in Ps 57:4:
|My soul is among lions;/ I must lie among those who breathe
fire,/ Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows,/ And
their tongue a sharp sword.
However, the closest parallel to our passage occurs in the Servant section of Isaiah, where the Servant says that God has made his "mouth like a sharp sword" (Isa 49:2). Though once called Israel (49:3), the Servant is the one who will regather and restore Israel (49:5-6) and who will also bring salvation to the Gentiles (49:6). John's allusion thus draws our attention to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, whereas the figure itself suggests that Christ will destroy his enemies with a word just as he once created with a word.
Christ's striking the nations is strongly paralleled in Isa 11:4:
|With righteousness He will judge the poor,/ And decide with
for the afflicted of the earth;/ And He will strike the earth with
the rod of His mouth,/ And with the breath of His lips He will slay
Paul uses similar words to describe Jesus' destruction of "the lawless one," whom Christ "will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming" (2 Th 2:8). The identification of Paul's "lawless one" with John's "beast" is obvious. All this reinforces the natural interpretation that our passage is describing Christ's second coming rather than (say) the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
John continues on to picture Jesus' activity as that of shepherding, but (significantly) with a rod of iron. This clearly alludes to Ps 2:9, where the Hebrew verb is pointed to read "shepherd" (with the LXX) rather than "break" (with the MT), even though the latter seems more natural in the context. John elsewhere alludes to "shepherding with a rod of iron" in Rev 2:27 and 12:5, where the former is an eschatological promise to the overcomer and the latter a prediction regarding the male child born to the woman clothed with the sun, presumably Jesus Christ. Significantly, the verb in the last of these is a present infinitive, apparently implying extended rule rather than momentary destruction. Taking the three passages together suggests that Jesus and his overcomers will be involved in an extended period of rule against opposition beginning with his return, thus something of a silver age.
John has already employed the winepress analogy to picture God's judging wrath in Rev 14:19,20. There the action is located "outside the city," presumably either Babylon (14:8) or Jerusalem (11:8). The same theme occurs in Isa 63:1-6, discussed above (verse 13), as well as in Joel 3:13. The latter passage locates the carnage in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (3:12), the location of which is otherwise unknown, yet it pictures God as speaking from Zion and Jerusalem (3:16). Both OT passages reflect God's judgment on the nations ("peoples," Isa 63:3,6; "nations," Joel 3:9,11,12) as well as deliverance for His people ("mighty to save," Isa 63:1; "year of redemption," 63:4; "salvation," 63:5; "restore Judah and Jerusalem," Joel 3:1; "on behalf of My people," 3:2; "a refuge for His people," 3:16). The Joel passage also contains the eschatological elements of astronomical darkness (3:15) and geological changes (3:15) which mark Zechariah 14 (see our discussion above, verse 14). Thus the winepress allusion draws our attention to these passages while its imagery suggests the smashing and bloodshed of the battle to come.
|(16) AND HE HAS A NAME WRITTEN ON HIS GARMENT AND ON HIS
"KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS."
As suggested above (verse 12), the name characterizes its possessor. John has already designated the Lamb by this title in Rev 17:14, where the beast and his ten kings are gathering to fight him. The battle there predicted is here about to be narrated, or else its description is here recapitulated.
The embroidering of a name on a garment seems natural enough, though I know of no Scriptural examples. The inscription "Holy to the Lord" is engraved on the high priest's turban (Ex 28:36-37); eschatologically it will occur even on the bells of horses (Zech 14:20). Likewise the fourteen stones on the ephod were also engraved, in this case with the names of the tribes of Israel (Ex 39:6,14).
Why is the name located on the thigh? This was a common location for wearing a sword (Jdg 3;16,21; Ps 45:3; Song 3:8) and would fit our military metaphors here except that Jesus' sword comes from his mouth. Perhaps consistency should not be pressed in such a symbolic passage.
Another possibility involves the idea of an oath. At least in Patriarchal times, oaths were sometimes made on the thigh of the person sworn to (Gen 24:2,9; 47:29). Perhaps the name on Christ's thigh reflects God's oath that all will bow to him (Isa 45:23; cp Php 2:9-11), a promise that will be brought to pass as Jesus carries out his military commission as Messiah (Ps 2:7-9).
|(17) AND I SAW AN ANGEL STANDING IN THE SUN, AND HE CRIED OUT
LOUD VOICE, SAYING TO ALL THE BIRDS THAT FLY IN MID-HEAVEN, "COME,
GATHER TOGETHER FOR THE GREAT DINNER OF GOD, (18) THAT YOU MAY EAT
THE FLESH OF KINGS AND THE FLESH OF GENERALS AND THE FLESH OF STRONG
MEN AND THE FLESH OF HORSES AND OF THOSE WHO SIT ON THEM, EVEN THE
FLESH OF ALL, BOTH FREE AND SLAVE, BOTH SMALL AND GREAT."
I have found no close analogies to the angel standing in the sun. The woman in Rev 12:1 is clothed with the sun, and the faces of Christ in Rev 1:16 and of the angel in 10:1 shine like the sun. These seem to speak of the glory of each, and it is possible that this is the only point being made in our passage.
However, it is also possible that some idea of the universality of the angel's message is in view, that he is calling all birds throughout the world. Ps 19:6 speaks of the sun, that "nothing is hidden from its heat." In this case, our passage is somewhat like that of the eagle announcing the three woes in Rev 8:13, who speaks to all those on earth, or like Satan's going out to the four corners of the earth to gather Gog and Magog against the saints (20:8). This also fits with the universal terminology of our verses, in which mankind is categorized (as in Rev 6:15 and 11:18) in such a way as to include all kinds, or at least all that might be in the beast's army.
The call to the birds to come and dine is clearly an allusion to Ezekiel, principally 39:17-19, but also to 39:4. A similar picture occurs in prophecy against Egypt in Ezk 29:5. This allusion is probably one of the strongest arguments for a recapitulation in Rev 20, since the call of Satan to Gog and Magog (20:8) is drawn from the same passage in Ezekiel (38:2,3,14,16-18; 39:1,6,11). However, it appears that John does not always mean to equate his vision with the OT item to which he alludes. For instance, the reference to the two witnesses in Rev 11:4 as "the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord" is clearly alluding to Zech 4:2-3,11-14, yet few would want to identify the two witnesses of Revelation as Joshua and Zerubbabel. The occurrence of similar remarks about birds eating Pharaoh (pictured as a sea monster) and his fishes (army?) in Ezk 29:5 shows that similar things have happen at other times in history. Yet I would score a point for the Amillennialists here.
|(19) AND I SAW THE BEAST AND THE KINGS OF THE EARTH AND THEIR
GATHERED TOGETHER TO MAKE WAR WITH THE ONE WHO SITS UPON THE HORSE
AND WITH HIS ARMIES.
The beast and the kings reappear for the first time since Rev 17:11-14, where we are told that they are going to fight against the Lamb and be conquered by him. This may be a recapitulation, but it looks more like a dramatic device in which events yet to be narrated are intimated in advance to whet the appetite and arouse the interest of the reader. In Rev 16:13-16, frog-like spirits go out from the dragon, beast and false prophet to gather the "kings of the whole world" for the "war of the great day of God, the Almighty." Our passage seems to be the continuation of this one, the final showdown between Christ and the beast.
The OT has several similar pictures, notably Psalm 2, Ezekiel 38, Joel 3, and Zechariah 12 and 14. All but the first use eschatological terminology. In Psalm 2, the "kings of the earth" plot rebellion against the Lord and His Anointed (2:2); God answers by installing His king at Zion (2:6); and the rulers are warned to submit before the wrath of the Son is kindled (2:11-12).
In Ezk 38:2-6, armies from north, east and south (at least) will invade Israel, and God will destroy them with sword, pestilence, rain, hail, fire and brimstone (38:21-22). In Joel 3:2, all nations will be gathered to the valley of Jehoshaphat where God will judge them. The scene is clearly military rather than judicial in the sense of a courtroom scene (3:9-10). God will bring down His mighty ones (3:10; angels? armies?), but the means of recompense is not stated, unless the remark about the Lord "roaring" from Zion (3:16) is a hint.
Zechariah 12 pictures a gathering of "all the nations" (12:3) against Jerusalem. God will defeat them by striking horse and rider with blindness and fear (12:4), and "the clans of Judah" will apparently fight on God's side as well (12:6). Zechariah 14 is probably a continuation of the same incident, separated by a section on the repentance of Israel. The nations gather against and take Jerusalem (14:2); God intervenes to fight them, taking His stand on the Mt. of Olives (14:4); the enemies are destroyed by a combination of some supernatural plague, panic on man and beast, and the cooperation of Judah (14:12-15). If these passages refer to the same incident as ours, then believers take part in the fighting to some extent.
|(20) AND THE BEAST WAS TAKEN, AND WITH HIM THE FALSE PROPHET
PERFORMED THE SIGNS BEFORE HIM, BY WHICH HE DECEIVED THOSE WHO TOOK
THE MARK OF THE BEAST AND THOSE WHO WORSHIPED HIS IMAGE. THE TWO WERE
THROWN ALIVE INTO THE LAKE OF FIRE WHICH BURNS WITH SULFUR.
The allusion back to Rev 13:13-17 is clear, where the miracles of the second beast (not identified as the false prophet until 16:13) and the mark of the beast are described. A similar passage is 2 Th 2:9-12, which speaks of the "lawless one" as coming with deception and miracles to deceive those who prefer wickedness. His destruction is to come by "the breath of [Christ's] mouth" (2:8), which in our passage is only expressly applied to his armies. Since these passages are almost certainly referring to the same event, such phenomena warn us not to build too much on arguments from silence, e.g., to assume that our passage has the armies of heaven only sitting and watching while Christ does all the fighting with one word.
The lake of fire is first mentioned here and again in Rev 20:10,14-15. It is clearly John's term for the eternal state of the lost. Something similar may be in view in Isa 30:33, where the king of Assyria is cast in a wood fire kindled by the breath of God. Similarly Isaiah ends with all mankind going out (of the holy city on the new earth?) to see the corpses of men whose "fire shall not be quenched" (66:24). The passage is cited by Jesus in Mark 9:48 as a description of Gehenna. The most similar passage is Dan 7:11, where the fourth beast is slain and thrown into the fire.
|(21) AND THE REST WERE KILLED BY THE SWORD BELONGING TO HIM
ON THE HORSE, THE SWORD WHICH COMES FROM HIS MOUTH, AND ALL THE BIRDS
WERE GORGED ON THEIR FLESH.
The destruction of armies gathered against the Lord is narrated in Ezk 38:21-22, Zech 12:4-6, and 14:12-13, as noted above (verse 19), but the details are dissimilar. Closest is Isa 11:4, where the "branch" from Jesse will "strike the earth with the rod of his mouth" and kill the wicked "with the breath of his lips." Also very similar is the reference in Isa 30:27ff, where "the name of the Lord" comes from a distance; "his tongue is a consuming fire"; he "shakes the nations back and forth in a sieve"; he disposes of the king of Assyria as noted above (verse 20).
If one consistent figure is employed, then the destruction of the
leaves enough for the birds to feast on. An ironic role-reversal may be
in view here also: as man since Gen 9:2 has been feeding on the birds,
now the birds will feed on man!
Produced for IBRI
PO Box 423
Hatfield, PA 19440
Last updated: April 13,