Friday, December 5
Revelation 12:1-17: Though it is surely no myth, this awesome vision bears a more than slight resemblance to certain themes in ancient mythology. For example, there was 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 has its myth of the dragon Set, who pursued Isis while she carried the sun god Horus in her womb. Set’s 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 describes 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.
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 mythological 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) known from the Book of Job and from Zechariah 3.
Saturday, December 6
Revelation 13:1-10: Up till now we have seen two beasts, one of them from the underworld (Chapter 11) and the other from the heavens (Chapters 12). Two more beasts will appear in the present chapter, one of them from the sea (verse 1), who also has seven heads and ten horns (cf. 12:3), and one from the land (verse 11).
The present reading is concerned solely with the first of these two latter beasts. Like the beast in Daniel 7, he is a composite of several menacing things (verse 2). He derives his “authority” from the Dragon (verses 2,4) whom we considered in Chapter 12. That is to say, this beast shares in the power of Satan.
With respect to his ten horns, two remarks are in order: First, in Daniel 7, the obvious literary background here, the ten horns seem to refer to the ten Seleucid successors of Alexander the Great. Second, here in Revelation 13 they seem to refer to Roman emperors. If we leave out Otho, who reigned over the Roman Empire for only three months, there were, in fact, exactly ten Roman emperors up to Domitian, who was responsible for the persecution of A.D. 95: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Almost all of these men were recognized as divine, some of them even before their deaths. Words such as Theos and divus appear on their coins. This figure, therefore, symbolizes the idolatrous pretensions of the Roman Empire, which John ascribes to Satan. Those pretensions claim an unquestioned and absolute allegiance over the human spirit.
This beast of the Roman Empire combines the worst features of all the earlier empires: Daniel’s winged lion of Babylon, the bear of the Medes, the leopard of the Persians, and the ten-headed hydra of the Greeks. One may note that John lists these components in the reverse order of Daniel.
Far more than ourselves, one fears, the early Christians were aware of the power of evil in the world. They spoke of it frequently in personified forms that are difficult to interpret literally. And the Christians described their relationship to this evil as one of warfare. The terms of the conflict described here in Revelation 13 may be compared to the description in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12. In each case there is a widespread deception of people, their enslavement and destruction by means of lies. In both of these texts a pronounced contrast is drawn between the worldlings, who are deceived and will perish, and the faithful, who will be saved by reason of their fidelity to Jesus.
Sunday, December 7
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.
Monday, December 8
Revelation 14:1-13: Now we come again to the sealing of the followers of Christ, first spoken of in Chapter 7. With respect to the “following” of the Lamb (verse 4), of course, the image is found also in the Gospels. When Jesus calls on His disciples to “follow” Him, the context is the Cross. The Lamb to be followed is the Lamb of sacrifice (Mark 8:34-38; John 21:18-19).
There are three angels in this text, representing three dimensions of the final age, the proclamation of the Gospel, the judgment of God on the city of man, and the eternal, wrathful exclusion of idolatry. First, the angel of the everlasting Gospel (verse 6), whose mandate, like the mandate at the end of Matthew, is directed to all nations. These are all called to repentance and conversion to the true God (verse 7; cf. Acts 14:15). Remember that in John’s view, the judgment of God is now. The judgment of God takes place in the very proclamation of the Good News (cf. John 3:19; 18:37). The Gospel here is called eternal; it is the proclamation of the eternal mind of God, His eternal purpose of salvation, the “Mystery” of which the Epistle to the Ephesians speaks.
Second, the angel who proclaims the fall of Babylon (verse 8). This, too, pertains to the Gospel. In biblical thought, the fall of Babylon means that the true Israelites can now go home, because the exile is over. Babylon is whatever enslaves and alienates the people of God. Babylon is the city of false gods, the city that dares to raise up its tower against the face of God; it is the monument to man’s achievements without God. Babylon is the city where men do not understand one another, because each man, as it were, speaks his own private meaning. The downfall of this city certainly is Good News, which is the meaning of the word Gospel. Christians are called to leave Babylon (18:4).
Third, the angel who proclaims the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath, to the exclusion of all idolatry (verses 9-11). This text is important because, like certain sayings of our Lord in the Gospels, it insists on the eternity of damnation. Unlike many modern men, the Bible believes that the definitive choice of evil lasts forever.
Tuesday, December 9
Matthew 24:29-35: That coming destruction of Jerusalem, foretold by Jesus, is seen by Matthew to be both a symbol and a first stage, as it were, of the final times of the world (as in the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel, 28:20), when Jesus will return in glory to judge. The sounding of the trumpet and the dispatching of the gathering angels (verse 31) were standard images of the world’s last judgment (Matthew 13:41,49), and we meet them in the New Testament’s earliest book (First Thessalonians 4:16). The coming judgment of the world will be the theme of the last part of Matthew’s next chapter (25:31-46).
These verses, a very precise prophecy about a specific and definitive event, give the lie to any attempt to make Jesus a calm, benign, harmless teacher of general religious theory. This is a prophecy of His return to earth at the end of time, and the Christian Church has always read it that way.
We may consider first the end of time, indicated by the inability of the astral bodies any longer to govern day and night: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (verse 29). This is a destruction of the fourth day of Creation.
The blotting out of the sun and moon also puts the reader in mind of the ninth plague of Egypt and the terror that accompanied that event.
Revelation 14:14-20: On the image of harvest as judgment, see Joel 4:13-14 (3:9-14). The Son of Man on the cloud is, of course, from the Book of Daniel, an image that Jesus interprets of Himself in each of the Synoptic Gospels.
Unlike ourselves, men in antiquity actually experienced harvesting with a sickle and treading grapes in a vat, both actions characterized by a distinct measure of violence. Even these relatively benign images of harvest season, therefore, strongly suggest that the “end of time” will be more than slightly daunting. It should not surprise us that the harvesting with a sickle and the trampling of a wine vat are associated with the feeling of God’s definitive wrath.
The association of anger with the treading of the grapes was hardly new (cf. Isaiah 63:1-6), and it will appear again (Revelation 19:13-15). The grape harvest arrives in September, as the seasonal period of growth comes to an end. It is natural to think of death at this time of the year.
The amount of blood in this text (verse 20) is rather dramatic. The Greek stadion being six hundred and seven feet, sixteen stadia is about two miles. A horse’s bridle is about five feet off the ground. Thus we are dealing with a great deal of blood. This must be one of the most unpleasant passages in the New Testament.
The rising pool of blood becomes a kind of Red Sea. Indeed, the following chapter will be full of imagery from the Book of Exodus: plagues, the cloud of the divine presence, the tent of testimony, Moses, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the destruction of the pursuers.
Wednesday, December 10
Revelation 15:1-8: This shortest chapter in the Book of Revelation introduces the imagery of the seven bowls of plagues, which will be poured out in the next chapter.
The ocean of blood, with which the previous chapter ended, has now become a kind of Red Sea (verses 1-3), which also inserts the theme of the Exodus. This theme itself is appropriate to the outpouring of the plagues. Other components of the Exodus theme likewise appear in this chapter: the Song of Moses, the cloud of the divine presence, the tent of testimony, and so forth.
The “sea of glass”?(verse 2) we have already considered in Chapter 4. Beside this sea stand God’s people who have passed over it in the definitive Exodus. They are musicians—harpists to be exact—identical with the one hundred and forty-four thousand whom we saw with the Lamb in the previous chapter; there was harp music in that scene too.
These elect have “overcome,” the very thing to which John had called the seven churches in Chapters 2-3. They are now beyond the power of the beast to harm them.
John sees in heaven the tabernacle of testimony from the Book of Exodus, the traveling tent of the divine presence that Moses and the Israelites carried through the desert. This tent, however, is “heavenly,” which means that it is the original model, the very pattern that Moses copied (Exodus 25:9,40; ?Acts 7:44; Hebrews 8:5).
Since the tent is a place of worship, we are not surprised that John sees seven angels coming out of it, clothed in priestly vestments (verse 6; cf. Exodus 28:4; 39:29), very much as Jesus was clothed in the inaugural vision (Revelation 1:12-13).
The tent itself is full of the cloud of the divine presence, the very cloud that led the Israelites through the desert of old. When that tent was dedicated in the desert, the divine cloud took up residence within it? (Exodus 40:34-38). That cloud later took residence in Solomon’s temple (I Kings 8:1-12), where Isaiah beheld it (6:1-4). In prophetic vision Ezekiel ?saw that cloud return to the second temple built in 520-516 (Ezekiel 44:4).
The hymn in verses 3-4 should be compared with Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, as recorded in 2 Chronicles 6:14-42. Both prayers, to begin with, are offered “at the sea” (verse 2; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13). ?Both prayers thank God for His mighty works, invoke His righteous judgments, and request the conversion of all the nations. Finally, in response to each prayer, fire comes down from heaven (verses 5-8; 2 Chronicles 7:1-2).
Thursday, December 11
Matthew 25:1-13: This story continues the theme of the delay of the parousia; it is the story of the ten maidens awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom. Everything is going just fine in the account, except for the delay involved: “But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (25:5). That is to say, they were not cautious about the warning, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:44).
The coming of the Bridegroom in this parable is identical to the parousia of the Son of Man mentioned several times in the preceding chapter (24:39,44,50).
The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times—the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.
In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).
The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to “go the distance” with God.
Revelation 16:1-9: Three of these four plagues are right out of the arsenal of Moses. Sores on the flesh of the bad guys (verse 2) were his sixth plague. As in the account in Exodus, the intent of this plague is that the idolaters should repent, but in neither case does it happen. The second and third plagues here (verses 3-4)—the changing of water into blood, are identical to Moses’ first plague—which was regarded, we recall, as a rather easy plague, in the sense that even Pharaoh’s magicians could do it (Exodus 7:22).
Here in Revelation, these two plagues are related to the great bloodshed of persecution caused by the enemies of God’s people (verse 6; 16:5-7). This crying out of the altar puts one in mind of the earlier scene where the souls (that is, the blood) of the martyrs cried from the altar (6:9-10). In that earlier scene the saints prayed for justice to be done on earth, for the righteousness of God to be vindicated in history. Now, in the present instance, the voice from the altar praises God that such justice has been done, that God’s fidelity has been made manifest.
The fourth plague does not appear in Exodus at all; Moses had been able to blot out the sunlight, but not even he was able to make the sun hotter. Even this plague, nonetheless, does not bring the idolaters to repentance (verse 9).
Friday, December 12
Revelation 16:10-21: The final three bowls of plagues stand parallel to two other biblical texts: the plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus and the trumpets from earlier in the Book of Revelation.
The darkness of the fifth bowl (verse 10) corresponds to the ninth plague in the Book of Exodus (10:21-29). The sixth bowl, the drying up of the Euphrates, includes the proliferation of frogs, which corresponds to Moses’ second plague against Pharaoh (Exodus 8:2-6). The hailstones that accompany the seventh bowl (verse 21) are parallel to Moses’ seventh plague against Egypt (Exodus 9:13-26).
There are also parallels between these three bowls of plagues and the three final trumpets that appeared earlier in Revelation. Thus, the fifth bowl (verse 10), like the fifth trumpet (9:1-2) causes darkness over the whole earth. The sixth bowl (verse 12), like the sixth trumpet, brings forth an invading army from east of the Euphrates (9:12-19). Finally, at both the seventh bowl and the seventh trumpet there are bolts of lightning, peals of thunder, and an earthquake (verse 18; 11:19).
The sixth bowl of plagues here is a composite. There is, first of all, a drying up of the Euphrates, so that the Parthian armies can march westward. This puts one in mind of the “drying up” of the Jordan, so that the Israelites could move west against the Canaanites. Because of the great difference between the two instances, however, this symbolism should be read as an example of theological “inversion” (in the sense used by John Steinbeck, who often employs biblical symbols in this way), so that the identical image is used for both good and bad meanings. With respect to the drying up of the Euphrates, John knew a precedent in Jeremiah (50:38), who spoke of the drying up of the waters of Babylon, to facilitate its capture by the Persians. Indeed, John will have a great deal to say about the fall of Babylon.
Verse 15 contains a well-known saying of Jesus, in which He compares His final return to the coming of a thief in the dead of night. This dominical saying is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew (24:43) and Luke (12:39).
The final battle takes place at Armageddon (verse 16), which literally is “hill of Megiddo.” Megiddo sits on the edge of the Plain of Esdralon and was in antiquity the site of two famous battles, in each of which a king was killed. In Judges 5 the Canaanite king Sisera was slain there, and 2 Kings 23 describes the death of Josiah there in 609. In John’s mind, Armageddon symbolizes disaster, catastrophe, and violence.