(updated early due to Thanksgiving holiday; please see the bottom of the page for a link to the current/previous week)
Friday, November 27
Revelation 9:1-12: The first four trumpets produced plagues that resembled the seventh, first, and ninth plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:22-26; 7:20-21; 10:21). These plagues, prompted by the trumpets, affect only the physical and astrophysical world—not human beings, at least not directly. The final three, described by the heavenly eagle as “woes,” afflict mankind directly (8:13).
The image of a fallen star already appeared in 8:10-11. Now another star falls in response to the fifth trumpet (verse 1; cf. Isaiah 14:12-20). This star opens the bottomless pit, from which arises a hellish smoke (verse 2; cf. 8:12) that contrasts with the incense smoke of prayer. The abyss represents existence without the worship of God—the theological term for which is “hell.” As John watches, a massive swarm of locusts takes form within that hellish cloud (verse 3), reminiscent of Egypt’s eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15). Unlike those former locusts, however, these locusts attack men themselves, not the plant life (verse 4). Their activity is limited to five months, which is roughly the normal life span of locusts.
Indeed, this may be the only feature in which these particular locusts in Revelation resemble any other locusts in the world. These are not your usual, run-of-the-mill locusts (verses 8-10). They are satanic locusts, denizens of the abyss, who afflict men with despair. They deceptively have human faces (verse 7), but they represent a worse than human evil.
Their king is called “Abaddon,” which is the Old Testament’s personification of the underworld, or grave. It literally means “destruction” (cf. Job 26:6; 31:12). John translates this name into Greek as Apollyon, meaning “destroyer” (verse 11). It is possible that John intends here a word play on the name “’Apollo,” which name, according to Aeschylus (Agamemnon 1082), comes from the verb apoluein, “to destroy.”
We may bear in mind, in this respect, that the Emperor Domitian—not a man easily outdone, it must be said, with respect to a high self-opinion—proclaimed himself a manifestation of Apollo. (There is simply no evil as evil as official, government-sanctioned evil.) The torture inflicted by these followers of Abaddon is spiritual, not physical, and the Christians, sealed with the sign of the Living God, are exempt from it.
Saturday, November 28
Revelation 9:13-21: To the citizens of the Roman Empire the Euphrates River was a symbol analogous to the “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War era, that is, a border beyond which the enemy world lay massively in menace (verse 14). The enemy in their case was the Parthian army, whose most memorable feature was its cavalry of archers. Guiding their mounts with their knees, and thus leaving both hands free, those fearsome Parthian horsemen could shoot arrows very quickly in all directions, including to the rear. This is perhaps the point of reference for John’s image of horses that bite with both their mouths and their tails (verse 19). By such means, says John, God will further chastise those who persecute His people.
Many details of this vision evoked by the sixth trumpet have striking parallels in Ezekiel 38-39. Fierce as it was, however, the Parthian army was never as fearsome as that described by John (verses 17-18). This is the army of hell, whose immense reserves are superior to all merely human forces. The number given by John, “two hundred million” (verse 16), would certainly constitute the largest army ever assembled. To grasp something of its magnitude, we may bear in mind that Alexander the Great captured everything from the Danube to the Indus with an army of a hundred-thousand.
The army that John sees, like the army of locusts summoned by the previous trumpet, comes right out of hell. Both of these invaders, the locusts and the horsemen, are sent to encourage men to repentance, but men’s hearts, like the heart of Pharaoh, are hardened. The idolatries listed in verse 20 are the root of the other moral evils listed in verse 21. This relationship of idolatry to moral evil is identical to that in Romans 1:21-32 and Ephesians 5:6.
Sunday, November 29
Revelation 10:1-11: Just as there was a double interrupting narrative immediately prior to the opening of the seventh seal, so a pair of visions will now precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet: the angel holding the little scroll, and the two faithful witnesses.
In the first of these, John is struck by the angel’s numinous character, at once bright and obscure. The angel’s body is clothed in a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud of the divine presence during ancient Israel’s desert journey and the cloud associated with the tabernacle of the divine presence. The face of the angel, on the other hand, has the luminosity of the sun. Nonetheless, the very fierceness of his countenance is tempered by the rainbow arching over his head, a reminder of the eternal covenant between God and creation in Genesis 9. The angel’s legs are pillars of fire, an image also reminiscent of the Exodus. His voice is like the roaring of a lion (verse 3), which is echoed by the seven thunders from Psalm 29 (Greek and Latin 28).
With one foot on the earth, one foot on the sea, and his hand extended into the air, the angel touches, as it were, all three aspects of physical creation: solid, liquid, and gas (verse 5). Moreover, all three of these components are mentioned in his oath (verse 6; Exodus 20:4,11), in which he swears that God’s secret purpose (to mysterion) in history will not be delayed of fulfillment.
The scroll that the angel holds is smaller than the scroll in Chapter 5, suggesting that its message may be less universal. Indeed, the message of that scroll is not directed to the world, but to the community of faith (verses 8-11). It is not read but eaten; John absorbs its message into himself. He assimilates the Word that he might then give expression to it. In this respect he imitates the prophet Ezekiel (2:9—3:4).
Monday, November 30
Revelation 11:1-14: In our reading of the Book of Revelation thus far we have encountered the Danielic expression, “a time, times, and half a time” (Daniel 12:7). If we substitute the word “year” for “time,” the meaning of the expression is clear: “three and a half years,” or forty-two months, or (following the Hebrew calendar of thirty days per month) twelve-hundred and sixty days. In the Book of Daniel this was the length of time during which the Jerusalem temple was violated by Antiochus Epiphanes IV (Daniel 9:27).
Similarly here in Revelation it is the symbolic length of time of severe trial and the apparent triumph of evil (verses 2-3; 12:6; 13:5). John’s contemporaries must also have been struck by the fact that the Roman siege of Jerusalem also lasted three and a half years, from A.D. 67-70. In the present chapter this length of time refers to the persecution of the Christian Church, of which Jerusalem’s temple was a type and foreshadowing.
There is found within the Christian Church, however, an inner court, as it were, a deep interior dimension that the forces of evil cannot trample. This inviolability is conferred by being sealed with the sign of the living God. It asserts that believers are not to fear those who can kill the body but can do no more, because there yet remains an inner court that is off-limits to the invader and defiler. This is the inner court of which John is told to take the measure (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-4; Zechariah 2:1-2), a measuring that he will narrate later (21:15-17).
The literary background of John’s vision of the two witnesses is Zechariah 4:1-3,11-14, where the prophet has in mind the anointed ruler Zerubbabel and the anointed priest Jeshua, the two men who preserved the worship in God’s house that they rebuilt between 520 and 516. Those two figures represented royalty (for Zerubbabel was a descendent of David) and priesthood (for Jeshua was a descendent of Aaron), which are two essential aspects of the life in Christ (cf. Revelation 1:6; 5:10).
“Two” witnesses are required, of course, this being the minimum number required in order “to make the case” (Deuteronomy 19:15). But the two witnesses in this chapter of Revelation are the heirs, not only to Zerubbabel and Jeshua, but also to Moses and Elijah. It was the first of these who afflicted Egypt with plagues, and the second who closed up heaven for three and a half years (cf. Luke 4:25; James 5:17). This is John’s way of asserting that the Christian Church, in her royal priesthood, continues also the prophetic war against false gods. She will destroy God’s enemies by fire (verse 5), as did Moses (Numbers 16:35) and Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-12).
When the monster from the abyss kills these two servants of God (verse 7), the forces of evil seem to have triumphed (verse 10), but they will be carried up to heaven—again like Moses (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.48) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11)—because the victorious Lamb has the final word.
With respect to the prophets Moses and Elijah, whose outlines app
ear in this vision as symbolic representations, we know that the “return” of both men was expected by John’s contemporaries (cf. John 1:21; Mark 6:15; 8:20). Both men did “return” at our Lord’s transfiguration; indeed, in Mark 9 and Matthew 17, the question of the return of Elijah is precisely the point of the conversation that immediately follows the transfiguration.
When the two witnesses ascend into heaven (verse 12), one tenth of the city falls (verse 13), the city in question still being “Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified” (verse 8). This one tenth of the city, calculated as seven thousand souls, is literally a tithe of the city’s population. Thus, the number of those who perish is a sort of direct reversal of the seven thousand who were saved in Elijah’s remnant (1 Kings 19:18).
Thus ends the second woe, which is the sixth trumpet (verse 14). Those first six trumpets were warning blasts, whereas the seventh will be a kind of fanfare (verse 15).
Tuesday, December 1
Revelation 11:5—12:6: In the hymn that follows the seventh trumpet (verses 17-18), we should especially observe that God’s wrath is salvific, a matter at which believers will rejoice, because God’s reign is established by His wrath. God is not a neutral observer of history. On the contrary, He is deeply biased on the side of the poor and oppressed. Some people in this world are poor and oppressed, because other people in this world worship false gods. In the biblical view, poverty and oppression are the results of idolatry, and this provokes God’s wrath. His wrath is against the false gods and their servants, and believers are summoned to rejoice in the victory of that wrath, because it is the victory of freedom over slavery, justice over injustice, and Moses over Pharaoh. The wrath of God is the last thing in the world that Christians should be afraid of, for the wrath of God is on their side (Matthew 23:35-36).
As in the ancient procession around Jericho, the Ark of the Covenant appears after the seventh trumpet (verse 19).
Chapter 12 begins with the vision of the woman clothed with the sun. Although the narrative associated with this vision is surely no myth, it bears a more than slight resemblance to certain themes in ancient mythology. There was, for example, the very primitive solar myth concerning the powers of darkness, which appear to triumph over the sun and to reign over the time of night, defying the promised sun. This darkness, which has usurped the reign of the sun, attempts to devour the sun in its very birth; to kill the sun, that is to say, as it emerges from its mother’s womb.
In at least two versions of this ancient myth, in fact, the darkness is portrayed as a dragon-like snake. Thus, Egypt had its myth of the dragon Set, who pursued Isis while she carried the sun god Horus in her womb. His plan was to devour Horus at his birth. It is further curious that Isis, like the Woman in Revelation 12 (verse 14), is portrayed in Egyptian art (on an elaborate door in the King Tut collection, for instance) with wings, so that she could flee from Set. Similarly, Greek mythology described the dragon-snake Python as pursuing the goddess Leto, who is pregnant with the sun god Apollo. In both cases, the little child escapes and later returns to destroy the usurping serpent. The similarities of both of these myths to the vision in Revelation 12 are rather striking. Both myths also touch on the subject of the illegitimate “usurper,” a theme Matthew develops in his story of Herod seeking to destroy the true King, Jesus, at His very birth.
Wednesday, December 2
Susannah and Daniel: Although many of us are accustomed to beginning the Book of Daniel with the story of his three young companions, the more authentic version of this book starts with Daniel’s saving of chaste Susannah. This story was dropped from the Aramaic version, probably (according to Hippolytus and Origen) because it reflected badly on the Jewish elders. It is noteworthy, nonetheless, that the Book of Daniel begins with the story of Susannah in every single Greek manuscript of the book, whether Christian or Jewish.
In this earlier version of the book, Daniel first appears as a voice, protesting the unjust condemnation of an innocent woman. That is to say, the reader hears Daniel—and rather loudly—before he really sees Daniel. Daniel’s first shape, so to speak, is that of a startling prophetic voice ringing out against injustice. Thus, a very young man dramatically takes his stand beside Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
Of all the characters in Holy Scripture, it was inevitable that Susannah would most be compared to Joseph, in the case of Potiphar’s wife. Indeed, the resemblance between the two instances is remarkable: Joseph and Susannah both resistant to assaults against their chastity, both falsely accused by those who lusted after them, both maintaining silence when accused, both condemned in a foreign country, and both finally vindicated by a providential intervention. No wonder that Christian readers have repeatedly elaborated comparisons between the two of them, whether with respect to their chastity under severe trial, to their being falsely indicted and condemned by their tempters, or to their patient silence when accused.
But if Susannah is to be likened to the unjustly accused Joseph, how much more to Jesus in the context of his Passion? Both Jesus and Susannah were betrayed in a garden, after all, a circumstance that would prompt a further comparison between the two lustful elders and Judas Iscariot. The sorely tried and unjustly accused Susannah, then, becomes a “type” of the Lord in his saving Passion. Both Susannah and Jesus, in fact, were alike in their being maliciously accused by false witnesses. Both remained similarly silent when indicted. Jerome, when he read of the resounding clamor raised for the execution of Susannah, thought immediately of the loud “Crucify him” against the Lord on Good Friday.
This comparison of the contrived criminal trials of Jesus and Susannah inevitably leads to a studied contrast between the judgments of Daniel and Pontius Pilate. It is a striking resemblance between the Susannah story and Matthew 27:24 that both Daniel and Pontius Pilate believed that the respective trial was ending in a miscarriage of justice, and in both instances there was made a claim to be “innocent of the blood” about to be shed. How different, nonetheless, the two cases! Susannah was saved from the crowd by the bravery of Daniel, whereas Jesus was handed over to the crowd by the cowardice of Pilate.
Thursday, December 3
Revelation 12:7-17: John’s vision takes place in the vault of heaven, where the Woman is described as a “sign,” an image reminiscent of Isaiah 7:10-11. Indeed, John seems to be saying that in the birth of Jesus Isaiah’s prophecy of virgin birth is fulfilled (cf. also Isaiah 26:17). Like Christ Himself (Revelation 1:16), this Woman is clothed with the sun. All Christians know the virginity of the mother of Jesus. Is this Woman being represented, therefore, as the zodiacal sign of Virgo? It would seem so, because, like the sign for Virgo, there are twelve stars involved. In the southern hemisphere the six stars crowning Virgo are sigma, chi, iota, pi, nu, and beta. In the northern hemisphere they are theta, star 60, delta, star 93, second-magnitude beta, and omicron.
Nonetheless, this is not simply a description of Christmas. The Woman in the vision is the mother of Jesus, but she is more; she is also the Church, which gives birth to Christ in the world. The sufferings and persecution of the Church are described as birth pangs (cf. John 16:21-22).
The serpent, of course, is the ancient dragon that is the enemy of our race, the one who seduced the first woman in the garden. Now he must face the new Woman, who is more than a match for him. His seven heads put one in mind of the ancient mythologic
al dragon Hydra, well known from a Canaanite narrative found in the excavations at Ras Shamra and from the traditional story of the Labors of Hercules. In Revelation it is clearly Satan, the Accuser (verse 10) from the Book of Job and from Zechariah 3.
Michael appears right out of Daniel, of course; in the New Testament he is spoken of only here and in the Epistle of Jude.
Friday, December 4
Revelation 13:11-18: Now we come to the beast arising out of the earth, a parody of Christ in the sense that he faintly resembles a lamb (verse 11). Performing great signs and bringing fire down from heaven (verse 13), he is also a parody of the two witnesses in Chapter 11; in this respect he resembles the magicians of Egypt. The Gospels, we recall, have several warnings against false christs and false prophets, who will work wonders.
Furthermore, in a parody of the sign of the living God in Chapter 7, he has his own version of the seal (verse 16). Those without the mark of the beast must suffer economic sanctions (verse 17). Political idolatry, in other words, has an important mercantile dimension, to which the Book of Revelation will return in later chapters. The adoration of the statue (verse 15), of course, is reminiscent of the fiery furnace story in Daniel.
Perhaps the easiest part of this text to discern is the meaning of the number of the beast. Indeed, John tells us that anyone with intelligence can do it (verse 18). For all that, the symbolism of the number is complex. A first mistake in attempting to read this number is that of imagining it as written out in Arabic numerals. This procedure should be dismissed immediately, because our modern numeral system, derived from the Arabs, was unknown to the writers of the Bible. In contrast, the numeral systems employed in the Bible are based entirely on the alphabet, whether Hebrew or Greek. Because of this, numbers could also stand for words, and a number of codes became possible. One of these, known as gematria, consisted in taking the prescribed numerical value of the various letters (aleph meaning one, beth meaning two, and so forth) in a name and then working little puzzles with them. There are several examples of this in Jewish works, such as the Talmud, and in early Christian writings, such as The Letter of Pseudo-Barnabas. There are also two examples of it in the Sibylline Oracles and two more in the graffiti in the excavations of Pompey.
In John’s case, his puzzle runs backwards. He gives us a number and expects us to figure out what word or name the number stands for. Obviously there are many possible combinations of letters that will add up to the value of six hundred and sixty-six. Interpreters of the Sacred Text, however, have been most partial to the Hebrew form of the name, “Nero Caesar,” which does, in fact, add up to exactly the number six hundred and sixty-six. There are other possibilities, but this explanation seems the most compelling. The number was thus a reference to Nero, the first Roman emperor who ever undertook the persecution of the Christian Church.