Good morning! Today with Revelation 12-16 we near the end of the punishing scenes in this book. Some of the characters in these chapters are written with such specific detail that it’s possible—or at least tempting—to identify them as allegories of certain ancient forces. No “referee” exists to confirm which of these are on point and which are figments of imagination, so we’ll be most honest if we err on the side of ambiguity.
Several characters from the Revelation 12-13 are a God-protected woman, a dragon, and two beasts. The woman gives birth and is protected by God, then her children are described as “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus”. Might the woman be the church? Her main adversary, a seven-headed, ten-horned dragon (and the “beast” described in the same way) can be more affirmatively identified as Rome itself. The heads and horns of the dragon likely allude to the different rulers of Rome over the years. Scholars have even had some (debatable) success linking the head that has recovered from a mortal wound to one of the Caesars who had survived an assassination attempt. The second beast supports allegiance to the first one and appears to be a religious power, using the means of faith to lead into idolatry. This could have been an “imperial cult”, praising Caesar as divine (commonly done) and intertwining devotion with commerce. Each Caesar, after all, had his image, name and title written on the money itself. The general dynamic of the dragon and beasts versus the woman at least fits the ancient context of Rome seeking to destroy the early Christian church.
After we hear the “Satanic number” 666, we see another number in heaven—the 144,000 saints who have been saved. They are “sealed” with the names of God and the lamb (contrary to the right-hand or forehead mark of the beast). Angels praise God and pronounce final judgment. Terrible punishments are decreed for those who adopt the beast’s mark or worship an idol of it. Perhaps John and others who used this imagery sought to instill fear in their flocks, discouraging anyone from capitulating to Roman authority. This could be why it’s followed immediately by blessing and commendation for those who die in the faith. Here’s also where we see imagery of the grim reaper, but the black, hooded specter from folklore is quite visually removed from the golden-crowned Son of Man “reaper” sitting on a cloud. (I’ve never thought of Christ as the “grim reaper”, but that’s what this suggests.) Those who know their hymnody will also recognize in chapter 14 imagery from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, especially “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”.
According to Revelation 15, the “wrath of God is ended” after the seven final plagues. (It’s a sign of how bleak these visions are that I find relief in the promise that God’s wrath DOES end, yet divine love remains.) Note that the imagery here is based on the ancient Hebrew temple, which would have been destroyed by the time of Revelation but is reimagined here in heavenly form. Like the temples constructed by Solomon and later Herod, there is a sea (a great bowl), doors opening, robed figures with golden sashes, and a smoke-filled interior.
What strikes me about the bowls of wrath poured out on the earth are the connections they make between human sin and environmental catastrophes. Can you imagine that human beings might be responsible for infections, a global oceanic dead zone, poisoned rivers and springs, the removal of solar protection, droughts and earthquakes? Here anyway, ancient Revelation may be anticipating modern-day pandemics, coral die-offs, water pollution, ozone layer destruction, desertification, and the consequences of fracking. What once seemed so terrible that only God could accomplish it has now come within reach of mere human beings. Perhaps 21st-century readers will find in Revelation a caution against the modern-day idolatries that cause such ecocide. “Happy” reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Revelation 17-20. Thanks for reading!