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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Greek Testament
Revelation 12

 

 

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Verse 1-2

Revelation 12:1-2. ἐν τ. οὐ. almost = “in the sky” (cf. Revelation 12:4.). A Greek touch: cf. Hom. Iliad, ii. 308, ἔνθʼ ἐφάνη μέγα σῆμα· δράκων ἐπὶ νῶτα δαφοινός (i.e. fiery-red). Here as elsewhere mythological traits of the original source are left as impressive and decorative details. The nearest analogy is the Babylonian Damkina, mother of the young god Marduk and “queen of the heavenly tiara” (i.e., the stars, cf. Schrader, pp. 360, 361). For Hebrew applications of the symbolism cf. Genesis 37:9-10 and Test. Naph. v. ( καὶ ἰούδας ἦν λαμπρὸς ὡς ἡσελήνη καὶ ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ ἦσαν ιβʹ ἀκτῖνες). The Egyptian Osiris was also wrapt in a flame-coloured robe—the sun being the “body” of deity (Plut. de Iside. 51). The original figure was that of Israel personified as a pregnant goddess-mother, but it probably represented to the prophet the true Israel or Zion of God (Wernle, 276–288) in which his Christ had been born (cf. John 16:21, with John 14:30, also En. xc. 37). The idealisation was favoured by the current conceptions of Zion as pre-existent in heaven (cf. Revelation 19:8, Revelation 21:8, and Apoc. Bar. iv. = widow) and as a mother (4 Esd. 9:38–10:59). The prophet views the national history of Israel as a long preparation for the anguish and woe out of which the messiah was to come. “Tantae molis erat Christianam condere gentem” (Grotius). The idea is echoed in Ep. Lugd., where the church is “the virgin mother”. The virgin-birth falls into the background here as in the Fourth Gospel, though for different reasons. The messiah of Revelation 12 is not the son of Mary but simply born in the messianic community, and the description is no more than a transcendental version of what Paul notes in Romans 9:4-5. The editor’s interest lies not in the birth of messiah so much as in the consequences of it in heaven and earth. At the same time the analogies discovered between Cerinthus and this passage (by Völter and others) are wholly imaginary (Kohlhofer, 53 f.).


Verse 3

Revelation 12:3. πυρρός, Vergil’s serpents which attack Laokoon have blood-red crests, and Homer’s dragon has a blood-red back, but here the trait (cf. above) is reproduced from the red colour of Typhon, the Egyptian dragon who persecuted Osiris (Plut. de Iside, 30–33). The seven heads are taken from the seven-headed hydra or mušmaḥḥu of Babylonian mythology. The devil’s deputy in Revelation 13:1 (= the composite mušruššu of Babylonia) has the same equipment of horns and heads, but the diadems adorn his horns. Here, to John’s mind at any rate (cf. Revelation 12:9), the dragon is not equivalent to any contemporary pagan power like Pompey (Ps. Sol. 2:29) or the king of Babylon.


Verse 4

Revelation 12:4. The symbolism is a reminiscence of an ætiological myth in astrology (cf. the cauda of the constellation Scorpio) and of the primitive view which regarded the dark cloud as a snake enfolding the luminaries of heaven in its hostile coils (Job 3:8; Job 26:13, with A. B. Davidson’s notes). Thus the Iranians (S. B. E. iv. p. lxxiii., Darmesteter) described the fiend as a serpent or dragon not on the score of craftiness but “because the storm fiend envelops the goddess of light with the coils of the cloud as with a snake’s fold”. The same play of imagination would interpret eclipses and falling stars, and, when the pious were compared to stars (as in Egyptian theology, Plut. de Iside, 21), it was but a step to the idea of Daniel 8. (cf. Sib. Or. ver. 512 f., the battle of the stars), where Antiochus Epiphanes does violence to some devout Israelites who are characterised as stars flung rudely down to earth (i.e., martyred, 1 Maccabees 1.) Originally, this description of the dragon lashing his tail angrily and sweeping down a third of the stars probably referred to the seduction of angels from their heavenly rank (so 8–9) to serve his will (Weiss). But John, in recasting the tradition, may have thought of the Danielic application, i.e., of the devil succeeding in crushing by martyrdom a certain number of God’s people. In this event, they would include at least, if they are not to be identified with, the pre-Christian martyrs of Judaism (cf. Hebrews 11:32 f. Matthew 23:35).— ἕστηκεν, a conventional posture of the ancient dragon cf. e.g., Pliny, H. N. viii. 3, “nec flexu multiplici ut reliquae serpentes corpus impellit, sed celsus et erectus in medio incedens”; ibid. viii. 14, for serpents devouring children. The mother of Zoroaster had also a vision of wild beasts waiting to devour her child at its birth. This international myth of the divine child menaced at birth readily lent itself to moralisation, or afforded terms for historical applications, e.g., the abortive attack on Moses, the prototype of messiah (Baldensperger, 141, 142) at his birth (Acts 7:20 f.) and the vain efforts of Herod against the messiah. The animosity of Pytho for Leto was due to a prophecy that the latter’s son would vanquish him.


Verse 5

Revelation 12:5. In accordance with the rabbinic notion which withdrew messiah for a time, the infant, like a second Moses, is caught up out of harm’s way. He has no career on earth at all. This is intelligible enough in a Jewish tradition; but while no Christian prophet could have spontaneously depicted his messiah in such terms, even under the exigencies of apocalyptic fantasy, the further problem is to understand how he could have adopted so incongruous and inadequate an idea except as a pictorial detail. The clue lies in the popular messianic interpretation of passages like Psalms 2. where messiah’s birth is really his inauguration and enthronement. The early application of this to Jesus, though not antagonistic to an interest in his historic personality, tallied with the widespread feeling (cf. note on Revelation 1:7) that his final value lay in his return as messiah. Natiuitas quaedam eius ascensio: “The heavens must receive him” (Acts 3:21) till the divine purpose was ripe enough for his second advent. This tendency of primitive Jewish Christianity serves to explain how John could refer in passing to his messiah in terms which described a messiah, as Sabatier remarks, sans la croix et sans la mort, and which even represented his ascension as an escape rather than a triumph. The absence of any allusion to the Father is not due so much to any reluctance on the prophet’s part to call Jesus by the name of Son of God (cf. Revelation 2:18), which pagan usage had profaned not only in such mythical connexion but in the vocabulary of the Imperial cultus, as to the fact that the mythical substratum always gave special prominence to the mother; the goddess-mother almost invariably displaced the father in popular interest, and indeed bulked more largely than even the child.


Verse 6

Revelation 12:6. ἀπὸ κ. τ. λ., = ὑπό of agent (so Acts 2:22; Acts 4:36, etc., Ps. Sol. 15:6, and a contemporary inscription in Dittenberger’s Sylloge Inscr. 6558 συντετηρημένα ἀπὸ βασιλέων καὶ σεβαστῶν) only here in Apocalypse. On the flight of the faithful to the wilderness, a stereotyped feature of the antichrist period, cf. A. C. 211 f. Apocalyptic visions, particularly in the form of edited sources or adapted traditions, were not concerned to preserve strict coherency in details or consistency in situation. Thus it is not clear whether the ἔρημος was conceived to exist in heaven, or whether heaven is the background rather than the scene of what transpires. What follows in 7–12 is the description (from the popular religious version of the source) of what John puts from a definitely Christian standpoint in Revelation 3:21, Revelation 5:5, where (as in Asc. Isa. Gk. ii. 9–11 the downfall of Satan is ascribed to Jesus himself.


Verse 7

Revelation 12:7. ἐγένετοτοῦ π. (= ותהי מלחמה בשׂמים לִהלחם), the nomin. makes this rare use of the genit. infin. even more clumsy and irregular than the similar constr. with accus. in Acts 10:25 (where see note). The sense is plain, and it is better to put the constr. down to syntactical laxity than to conjecture subtle reasons for the blunder or to suggest emendations such as the addition of ἐγένετο to πόλεμους (Vit. i. 168), or of ἦσαν or ἐγένετο before ΄. κ. οἱ ἄγ. αὐτοῦ (Ws., Bousset), the latter being an irregular nomin., or the alteration of πολ. to ἐπολέμησαν (Düst.) or the simple omission of πόλεμοςοὐρανῷ. For πολ. μετὰ cf. Thumb 125 (a Copticism?). In the present form of the oracle, the rapture of messiah seems to have stimulated the devil to fresh efforts, unless we are meant to understand that the initiative came from Michael and his allies. The devil, as the opponent of mankind had access to the Semitic heaven, but his role here recalls the primitive mythological conception of the dragon storming heaven (A. C. 146–150). Michael had been for over two centuries the patron-angel or princely champion of Israel ( εἷς τῶν ἁγίων ἀγγέλων ὂς ἐπὶ τῶν τοῦ λαοῦ ἀγαθῶν τέτακται, En. Revelation 20:5; cf. A. C. 227 f.; Lueken 15 f.; Volz 195; R. J. 320 f., and Dieterich’s Abraxas, 122 f.). As the protector of Israel’s interests he was assigned a prominent rôle by Jewish and even Christian eschatology in the final conflict (cf. Ass. Mos. x. 2). For the theory that he was the prince-angel, like a son of man (Daniel 7:13) who subdued the world-powers, cf. Grill 55 and Cheyne 215 f. More generally, a celestial battle, as the prelude of messiah’s triumph on earth, forms an independent Jewish tradition which can be traced to the second century B.C. (cf. Sibyll. iii. 795–807, 2 Maccabees 5:2-4; Jos. Bell. vi. 5, 3).— καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ The only allusion in the Apocalypse (cf. even Revelation 20:11 with Matthew 25:41) to the double hierarchy of angels, which post-exilic Judaism took over from Persia (Bund, iii. 11). In the Leto-myth, Pytho returns to Parnassus after being baffled in his pursuit of the pregnant Leto.


Verse 9

Revelation 12:9. δράκων and ὄφις are in the LXX interchangeable terms for the leviathan or sea-monster of mythology, who is here defined as the old serpent (a rabbinical expression, cf. Gfrörer, i. 386–389); so Tiâmat, the primaeval rebel, as dragon and serpent (cf. Rohde’s Psyche, 371) had been identified in JE’s paradise-story with the malicious and envious devil (Sap. 2:24; En. xx. 7; Test. Reub. 5). The opponent of God was the adversary of man (cf. Oesterley’s (917) vol. of Mess. Idea, 176 f.). Two characteristic traits of Satan are blended here: (a) cunning exercised on men to lure them into ruin ( πλανῶν, κ. τ. λ., cf. 2 Corinthians 2:11; 2 Corinthians 11:3), and (b) eagerness to thwart and slander them before God (Revelation 12:10, cf. En. xl. 7; Zechariah 3:1 f.). The second is naive and archaic, of course, in a Christian apocalypse.


Verse 10

Revelation 12:10. κατήγωρ ( קטיגוִר) is the counterpart to the rabbinic (Lueken 22) title of συνήγορος given to Michael as a sort of Greatheart or advocate and protector of men (En. lx. 9). The Aramaic derivation of the word (Win. § 8. 13) is not absolutely necessary, as the papyri show that it might have sprung up on Greek soil (cf. Thumb, 126; Rademacher, Rhein. Mus. lvii. 148). On the accuser’s rôle cf. Sohar Levit. fol. 43 (ille semper stat tanquam delator coram rege Israelis) and the prayer of Jub. Revelation 1:20 : “let not the spirit of Beliar rule over them to accuse them before thee and to turn them deceitfully from all the paths of righteousness” (where both traits are combined, cf. above on 9).


Verse 11

Revelation 12:11. This sentence, like Revelation 12:7, suggests that earth’s history is the reflex and outcome of transactions in heaven, on the common principle of Jalkut Rub. (on Exodus 14:7): “there was war above in heaven) and war below (on earth), and sore was the war in heaven”. Satan’s dislodgment from heaven is another (cf. on Revelation 11:19) sign of messiah’s approaching victory (cf. Yasna xxx. 8). What Jesus had already seen in his own victory over daemons (Matthew 12:24 f.; cf. J. Weiss, Predigt Jesu, 28 f., 89 f.), John hails from another standpoint, as inaugurating the messianic age. Vexilla regis prodeunt. How readily the mythological trait could be moralised is evident from a passage like Romans 8:33 f., of which Revelation 12:11 is a realistic variant. In the background lie conceptions like that of En. xl. 7 where the fourth angel of the Presence is heard “fending all the Satans and forbidding them to appear before the Lord of Spirits to accuse men” Revelation 12:11 chronologically follows Revelation 12:17, but the author, by a characteristic and dramatic prolepsis, anticipates the triumph of the martyrs and confessors, who refute Satan’s calumnies and resist his wiles. In opposition to the contemporary Jewish tradition (Ap. Bar. ii. 2, xiv. 12; 4 Esd. 7:77, etc.), it is not reliance on works but the consciousness of redemption which enables them to bear witness and to bear the consequences of their witness. This victory on earth depends on Christ’s previous defeat of evil in the upper world (Colossians 2:15; cf. above on Revelation 2:10, also Revelation 21:8) which formed its headquarters.


Verse 12

Revelation 12:12. εὐφραίνεσθε, cf. the Egyptian hymn in honour of Râ, the sun-god: “Râ hath quelled his impious foes, heaven rejoices, earth is delighted”.— οὐαὶ κ. τ. λ. This desperate and last effort of Satan is a common apocalyptic feature (cf. e.g., 4 Esd. 13:16 f.; Ap. Bar. xxviii. 3, xli. 1, lxxv. 5; Mark 13:21; Did. xvi.), which John identifies later with the Imperial cultus.

The dragon’s pursuit of the woman (Revelation 12:13-17) resumes and expands the hint of Revelation 12:6.


Verse 14

Revelation 12:14. “The two wings of a huge griffon-vulture” ( τοῦ either generic article, or a Hebraism, or more likely an allusion to the mythological basis). In traditional mythology the eagle opposed and thwarted the serpent at all points (cf. reff.). In the Egyptian myth the vulture is the sacred bird of Isis (Hathor). Any allusion to Israel’s deliverance (as in Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11) is at best secondary.


Verse 15

Revelation 12:15. Another mythological metaphor for persecution or persecutors, like “torrents of Belial” (Psalms 18:4). As the primaeval dragon was frequently a sea-monster, from Tiâmat onwards, his connexion with water (cf. on Revelation 8:10) was a natural development in ancient (cf. Pausan. ver 43 f.) and even Semitic (e.g., Psalms 74:4; Ezekiel 29, 32.) literature. The serpent in the river was, for Zoroastrians, a creation of the evil spirit (Vend. i. 3).


Verse 16

Revelation 12:16. The dragon is unexpectedly baffled by the earth, as the woman’s ally, which swallows the persecutors like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16:30-32). This enigmatic detail has not yet been paralleled from Jewish or early Christian literature, for Protev. Jacobi, 22 (cited by Selwyn, 7–9) is even more remote than 4 Esd. 13:44. Probably it was retained from the astrological setting of the original myth: Cetos, the aquatic dragon of the southern heavens, which astrologically is a watery region, casts forth the river of Êridanos, which is swallowed up in the zodiac as it flows down the heavens into the underworld.


Verse 17

Revelation 12:17. The baffled adversary now widens his sphere of operations.— τ. λ. an apocalyptic term = the derelicti or relicti of 4 Esdras (cf. Volz, 319). These represent to the Christian editor the scattered Christians in the Empire; by adding this verse (or at least καὶ ἐχ.… ἰησοῦ) to the source, he paves the way for the following saga of 13. which depicts the trying situation of Christians exposed to the attack of the devil’s deputies. The devil keeps himself in the background. He works subtly through the Roman power. This onset on the faith and faithfulness of Christians by the enforcement of the Imperial cultus is vividly delineated in Ep. Lugd. which incidentally mentions the experience of Biblias who, like Cranmer, repented of a recantation. “The devil, thinking he had already swallowed up (918)., one of those who had denied Christ, desired to condemn her further by means of blasphemy, and brought her to the torture [i.e., in order to force false accusations from her lips].… But she, reminded by her present anguish of the eternal punishment in Gehenna [cf. Revelation 14:9 f.], contradicted the blasphemous slanderers, confessed herself a Christian, and was added to the order of the martyrs.” Blandina, the heroic slave-girl, survived several conflicts ἵνα νικήσασα τῷ μὲν σκολιῷ ὄφει ἀπαραίτητον ποιήσῃ τὴν καταδίκην.

The keynote of the situation hinted in Revelation 12:17 f. is struck in Revelation 13:2. The dragon has given his authority to the beast; what God’s people have now to contend with is no longer the O.T. Satan merely (Revelation 12:9-10) but his powerful and seductive delegate on earth. In the Imperial cultus the Christian prophet could see nothing except a supreme and diabolically subtle manœuvre of Satan himself (cf. on Revelation 13:1; Revelation 13:5). The Danielic prophecy was at last on he verge of fulfilment! Mythological and cosmological elements (S. C. 360 f.) were already present in the Danielic tradition, but the prophet (or the source which he edits) readapted them to the historical situation created by the expectation of Nero’s return from the under world and the enforcement of the Imperial cultus. For the hypothesis of a Caligula-source in this chapter, cf. Introd § 6.

Revelation 12:17 to Revelation 13:18 : the saga of the woman and the red dragon (a war in heaven) is followed by the saga of the two monsters from sea and land (a war on earth), who, with the dragon, form a triumvirate of evil. First (Revelation 12:17 to Revelation 13:10) the monster from the sea, i.e., the Roman Empire.

Rev 12:18. The scene is the sea-shore, ex hypothesi, of the Mediterranean (Phœdo, 109 b, 111 a, etc.), i.e., the West, the whole passage being modelled on Daniel 7:2-3; Daniel 7:7-8; Daniel 7:19-27, where the stormy sea from which the monsters emerge is the world of nations (cf. 4 Esd. 11:1: ecce ascendebat de mari aquila, also 4 Esd. 13:1)

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicol, W. Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Revelation 12:4". The Expositor's Greek Testament. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/egt/revelation-12.html. 1897-1910.

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Sunday, August 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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