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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Revelation 12

 

 

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Verse 1

The Fourth Vision. The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Beasts.

The Woman Clothed With the Sun and the Great Red Monster (Revelation 12:1 to Revelation 13:1 a).

‘And a great sign was seen in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.’

Now we are to have unveiled before us even more details of what has previously been described, going back in history and going forward to the end. These few verses are setting the scene for the battle between good and evil.

‘A great sign’. This is a symbol in a book of symbols, but the use of ‘great’ shows how important it is. In those days people were used to interpreting signs in the heavens. Thus it is seen as having great significance. It is one of three signs to be revealed in heaven, the second is the sign of the monster (Revelation 12:3) and the third, the sign of the seven angels with the seven plagues (Revelation 15:1). These cover all aspects of history, the history of salvation, the history of rebellion against God, and the history of the judgments of God.

‘A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars.’ The only place in Scripture where we find this combination of sun, moon and stars applied to man is in Genesis 37:9, where it represents Jacob (Israel) the founding father of Israel, his wife, and his twelve children, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. The sun represents Jacob, the moon his wife and the twelve stars the sons of Jacob. John thus sees the woman as representative of the chosen people of God, the children of the promise, the true, the righteous Israel.

Her being ‘clothed’ with the sun also reveals her righteousness and glory in God’s eyes, ‘then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Matthew 13:43). We may see also the expectancy of the coming of Christ, ‘the sun of righteousness with healing in his wings’ (Malachi 4:2).

The moon under her feet symbolises the fact that time itself will be put under her feet (Psalms 8:3 with 6). She is everlasting. The moon was seen as controller of times and seasons (Psalms 104:19). It determined the length of the month (Isaiah 66:23), signalled the commencement of the new year (Numbers 28:11), and the new moon was set apart as a holy day (1 Samuel 18:5; 1 Samuel 18:20; 1 Samuel 18:24; 2 Kings 4:23; 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; Psalms 81:4; Isaiah 1:14 and often). It is a symbol of time itself (Psalms 72:7; Psalms 89:37).

The crown demonstrates that she is destined to rule. The twelve stars on the crown are in apposition to the seven heads and ten horns of the monster (Revelation 12:3) and represent the twelve patriarchs and thus the twelve tribes of Israel, and also possibly, but secondarily, the twelve Apostles as successors, continuing their oversight of God’s people. They are God’s reply to the power and aims of the enemy.

The vision reminds us of the words of the psalmist, ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have ordained, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you visit him? You made him a little lower than the angels, and crown him with glory and honour, you made him to have dominion over the works of your hands, you have put all things under his feet’ (Psalms 8:3-6). So humble man (and in Revelation 12 the humble church), who is so insignificant compared with the heavens, is to be exalted, glorious like the heavens, crowned with glory and honour, with all things in submission to him. The psalm is quoted in Hebrews 2:6-8 where it is seen as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman.

In Isaiah 54:5 Israel is clearly depicted as a woman, and as God’s wife, a wife who is restored to full wifehood (v. 6) so that she may receive great mercies. All her children will be taught of the Lord (v. 11). But it is only asfaithfulIsrael that she can be restored.

Hosea says the same thing when he describes God as alluring Israel, bringing her into the wilderness and speaking to her comfortable things, so that she will call Him ‘my husband’, and He will betroth her to Him for ever in righteousness and in justice, and in loving kindness and in mercies, and in faithfulness (Revelation 2:14; Revelation 2:16; Revelation 2:19-20). And He will then say to them ‘you are My people’ (v. 23). So the fruitful wife of the Lord is an Israel made faithful to Him. Ezekiel 16:12-13 confirms that Israel was seen as crowned, and of royal estate.

It is important to recognise that in the end God’s calling was not of the whole of Israel, but of faithful Israel, ‘the remnant’ (Romans 9:6). When God chose Abraham only one of his sons, Isaac, was the child of promise, and of Isaac’s children only Jacob was the child of promise (Romans 9:13). In the same way not all Jacob’s (Israel’s) descendants are the children of promise. It is only the elect who respond in faith who enjoy the promise (Romans 11:7).

In Elijah’s time this was the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (Romans 9:4). This doctrine of the holy remnant is accepted by the prophets (Isaiah 6:13 - where he speaks of ‘the holy seed’; see also Isaiah 1:9; Isaiah 10:20-22; Isaiah 49:3 with 6; Ezekiel 14:22; 2 Kings 19:30-31), and Paul describes them as a remnant in accordance with God’s gracious choosing (Romans 9:5).

The so-called ‘children of Israel’ were in fact made up of people from many nations, commencing with the servants of the Patriarchs, continuing with ‘the mixed multitude’ (Exodus 12:38) and including others who were adopted into the tribes such as Uriah the Hittite (see 2 Samuel 11), and many others. While they called themselves ‘children of Israel’ the only real claim of the majority of them to the promises was by entering into and being faithful to the covenant. Indeed only those who were truly faithful to the covenant could be the true Israel

Thus the woman is clearly the holy remnant of Israel (Isaiah 6:13). That this woman can only be the truly faithful in Israel comes out in that she is clothed with the sun. As we have shown this includes reference to the idea behind our Lord’s words about the righteous shining forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Righteousness is equated with the shining forth as the sun. Being clothed with the sun is a similar idea to being clothed in white robes. It only applies to the truly faithful.

So while in the world of the nations the sun, moon and stars were to be worshipped (Jeremiah 8:2; Deuteronomy 4:19; 2 Kings 21:3; 2 Kings 23:5), in the history of salvation they represent His faithful people to whom the nations will come in final submission (Isaiah 60:14).


Verse 2

‘And she was with child and cries out, travailing in birth and in pain to be delivered.’

This description of Israel in birth pains comes from Isaiah 66:8; Micah 4:9-10. God has destined his people to suffer in carrying forward the history of salvation. He has chosen them as His means of salvation, but it was to be through much tribulation and anguish that it would be accomplished. The seed of the woman will smite the Serpent’s head, but He will be born through the woman’s travail (Genesis 3:15-16).

She ‘cries out’ to God for His deliverance to be revealed. For the aspirations of Israel see Luke 1:46-55; Luke 1:68-79; Luke 2:29-32. Their longing is for deliverance and the ‘birth’ of themselves as a new nation and part of this longing is for the birth of the Messiah through whom the nation will achieve its calling. The idea of the birth pangs for the Messiah, based on these passages in Isaiah and Micah, was familiar in contemporary literature.


Verse 3

‘And there was another sign in heaven, and behold, a great red monster having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems.’

This is the second sign in heaven.

‘A great red monster’. In ancient myths monsters were often seen as fighting with gods in a way that was thought to influence the world. Such ideas were taken up in the Old Testament to depict the enemies of Israel. In Isaiah 27:1 the prophet describes ‘the Leviathan, the swift serpent, the Leviathan, the crooked serpent, and --- the monster that is in the sea’, speaking of the swift river Tigris, the winding river Euphrates and Egypt, in depicting the punishment coming on Assyria and Egypt (this picture is taken from the Baal myths which speak of ‘Lotan the writhing serpent -- the twisted serpent, the accursed one with seven heads’. The monster is thus a great serpent-like creature).

In Psalms 74:13-14 the dividing of the Reed Sea at the Exodus is described as ‘breaking the heads of the dragons in the waters, breaking the heads of Leviathan in pieces’. The same event is described in Isaiah 51:9 as cutting Rahab in pieces and slaying the monster (compare Isaiah 30:7; Ezekiel 29:3; Ezekiel 32:2; Psalms 89:10). Thus Egypt is seen as Leviathan and Rahab, both legendary monsters. Babylon is similarly spoken of (Jeremiah 51:34). (The same terms can be used of the crocodile (Job 41:1 on) and the whale (Psalms 104:26)).

Thus the terms signify awesome enemies of the people of God and are here taken up by John to depict the greatest Enemy of all (Matthew 13:39; Luke 10:19).

The seven diadems are probably in contrast with the crown of the woman. The former were worn by kings of the nations, the latter is the crown of the victor. However He Who is the Word of God will have many diadems for He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:12 with 16).

‘Red’ - a fiery red, used of the red horse which takes peace from the earth (Revelation 6:4). Thus it speaks of the opposite of the Prince of peace. It is a creature of blood.

‘Seven heads and ten horns’- see Daniel 7:7 for ten horns where they represent ten kings (Daniel 7:24). The idea of the many headed monster comes from Psalms 74:13-14 (seven headed in Canaanite mythology, see above). In Revelation 17 the seven heads are ‘seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings’ (Revelation 17:9-10). Seven is the number of heavenly completeness and this therefore shows the monster to be the world ruler (John 12:31; John 14:30; John 16:11) whose power is behind those who rule on earth. Indeed the Lord did not dispute his claim to be able to give Him the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them (Matthew 4:8-9; Luke 4:5-6). He also has ten horns, but their rule is far in the future. All earthly rulership to be described in Revelation has its source in the monster.

Babylon was depicted as a ‘destroying mountain’ (Jeremiah 51:25). Compare the ‘mount of destruction’ in 2 Kings 23:13, and the mountain that represented the destruction of earthly kingdoms by the heavenly kingdom in Daniel 2:35 with 44. Thus mountains are symbolic of destructive power.

So the battle lines are drawn up, the woman, the faithful wife of the Lord, against the great monster; the patriarchs and the people of God against Satan (Revelation 12:9), and against those mighty ones, instruments of destruction, whom he empowers.


Verse 4

‘And the monster stood before the woman who was about to be delivered so that when she was delivered he might devour her child. And she was delivered of a son, a male child who is to rule (act as shepherd to) all the nations with a rod of iron, and her child was caught up to God and to his throne.’

This vivid picture of Satan waiting to devour the woman’s son, brings out his fear of the woman and her seed. Though great in power he is not permitted to destroy the woman. He must therefore destroy her seed.

The fact that the monster cannot devour the woman is another example of God’s preserving power. God says, ‘thus far you may go and no further’. We can compare the restrictions God put on Satan with regard to Job (Job 1:12), and how for three and a half years He preserved the two witnesses (chapter 11).

The picture that follows does not pretend to be a detailed explanation of the life of Jesus, but to illustrate the important fact of His triumph in as few words as possible so as not to divert attention away from the woman, and to centre attention on the battle in the heavens. (John knew his book would be read to people who would never have the chance to read it for themselves. In the reading he did not want their attention to be turned aside from the main point, the woman’s career).

‘That -- he might devour her child’. As soon as Jesus was born Satan did make his first attempt to ‘devour’ Him, for Herod sought the young child to kill Him (Matthew 2:16). But he failed. That attempt is looked on as summarising all Satan’s later activities, his constant attempts to destroy Jesus, which ended in the cross. There he thought he had finally succeeded, but his total failure is clearly summed up in the fact that Jesus was carried up to His Father’s throne, a proof of His triumph and of the fact that He now reigns in Heaven.

But who was the son, the male child of whom Israel cried to be delivered? (Revelation 12:2). There can only be one answer, the promised seed. The primary one who is to be born of faithful Israel is the Messiah, the seed of the woman who would break the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15); the lion of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:9-10); the star of Jacob and Sceptre of Israel (Numbers 24:17); the son (male child) born of a woman who will be called ‘God is with us’ (Isaiah 7:14); the male child to be born and the son to be ‘given’ on whose shoulders will rest governing power, who will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, whose kingdom would know no end (Isaiah 9:6-7); the shoot from the stock of Jesse who would be endued with the Spirit of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1); the one who will come forth from Bethlehem to be ruler of Israel whose going out has been from everlasting (Micah 5:2). He is the one who ‘will judge the nations with a rod of iron’ (Revelation 19:15; Psalms 2:9). Most of all he is the one who is caught up to God and to His throne, and no one shares the Father’s throne except the Son (Revelation 3:21).

Some have questioned this identification on the grounds that the description of the male child’s career is expressed too briefly and does not outline the facts of Jesus’ life and end. But the concentration at this point is not on the male child but on the woman’s fate. We are not dealing here with theological niceties but with vivid symbolism, dealt with as succintly as possible. The monster waiting to devour the man-child did finally fail in his purpose. He thought he would succeed, but he was wrong. At the very moment when he thought he had achieved his aim he was made aware of his mistake. The Son was taken up to the throne of His Father. So did Jesus in His manhood escape from his evil purposes to His final triumph.

Furthermore it is Jesus Christ who is depicted as the One ‘Who will break the nations with a rod of iron’. In Psalms 2 this idea is expressed of the Messiah and there in the context of ‘yet have I set my king on my holy hill of Zion’. This latter was fulfilled when Jesus was caught up into heaven and to His Father’s throne in the heavenly Jerusalem. Thus this is what John depicts. This last in itself confirms that He had defeated the power of evil and made a show of them, for His place on the throne demonstrated that He had taken authority and had begun to reign over all things. It also demonstrates that in the first analysis only He could be the male child.

But the early church and the epistles saw a further glorious truth. When Christ died, His people died with Him, when Christ rose, His people rose with Him, when Christ ascended into Heaven, His people ascended with Him. When Christ was seated on His throne far above all, His people sat with Him (Ephesians 1:19 to Ephesians 2:7 compare Colossians 3:1; Colossians 2:12-13). This important teaching must not be overlooked. To the early church it was part of their experience and belief. (Compare on Revelation 20:3 onwards). So in this passage we see the triumph of the people of God already made certain in Christ. Because of this they are untouchable.

Thus the man child is also secondarily the people of God, for the overcomer is promised that he too will rule the nations with a rod of iron (Revelation 2:27). This compares with the Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 42; Isaiah 45; Isaiah 50; Isaiah 53) who is primarily Christ, as Luke especially makes clear, but is secondarily also His church (Acts 13:47). Satan will seek to destroy the church as well (Revelation 12:17), but he cannot for they are safe in Christ. The church too will later be caught up to God at the rapture when Christ comes. But that is simply the final fulfilment of God’s purposes in physical form. In a real sense this has already taken place for they were caught up when Christ was caught up. They were raised with Him far above all and share His triumph (Ephesians 2:6).

An attempt is sometimes made to relate the male child directly to the church and not to Christ at all. But no overcomer is to be borne up to God’s throne directly. Rather he shares Christ’s throne with Him and the difference in the two is made crystal clear elsewhere in Revelation (Revelation 3:21). The overcomer has this promise to ‘rule’ the nations precisely because he is in Christ and shares His throne, and not by any intrinsic right of his own. His authority is secondary. It is Jesus Christ who has the primary authority because He shares His Father’s throne. The promise in Revelation 2:27 is an assurance that the overcomer will be set above those who have previously persecuted him, but it does not make him the primary ruler of the nations. That is only true of Jesus Christ.

But why does John not fill out the picture a little more? Almost certainly, because he does not want to take the readers attention away from the woman. It is her career that is his interest at this point. Thus he puts as succintly as possible the triumph of Jesus. The atonement has already been sufficiently presented (Revelation 5:6; Revelation 7:14). The Lamb and what He has accomplished has been clearly revealed there. He therefore limits his description to the final fact that the man-child, who will rule the nations with a rod of iron, has been raised to God’s throne for this very purpose. His readers automatically know that this One Who is borne up to God has been depicted as the slain Lamb.

The picture is very vivid. The monster waiting to devour the child, making his attempts knowing that all depends on it, and failing, for the child is taken from his empty grasp before his eyes and ascends to the throne, followed by his determination to destroy the woman and prevent the fulfilment of God’s purposes. Thwarted and defeated by the cross and the resurrection he determines to cause as much damage as possible.

‘Was caught up’. The verb can mean simply ‘borne away unresistingly’. Thus it is used in Acts 8:39 of Philip being taken away by the Spirit having spoken with the Ethiopian eunuch and in 2 Corinthians 12:2 of Paul being taken up to the third heaven. It carries no special significance of urgency. It simply describes what happens as being the action of God from the throne.


Verse 6

‘And the woman fled into the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God, that there they may nourish her for one thousand, two hundred and sixty days.’

This verse is put in as a quick note to explain the final effect for the woman of what happens to her son. It is amplified in more detail in Revelation 12:13-17.

The fleeing into the wilderness is similar to the ‘flee into the mountains’ of Matthew 24:16; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:21, advice from Jesus of what those in Judea should do when Jerusalem is surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20) and the desolating abomination is set up (the image of the Emperor of Rome on the standards of the legions). John speaks with an awareness that at that time the people of God did flee over the Jordan into the wilderness country (by this time the Jewish remnant of old is recognised as being found in the churches of Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee).

According to Eusebius the Jerusalem church fled to Pella beyond the Jordan, and many Jewish Christians in Judea and Galilee no doubt fled into the surrounding wilderness for safety under persecution from the local would be ‘Messiahs’ who sprang up and demanded a following, as well as seeking safety in the light of the Roman response to those Messiahs.

But John is concerned also with the symbolism of the wilderness, namely that it signified a time of testing and purifying (1 Kings 19:4; 1 Kings 19:15; Mark 1:12-13; Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1). The connection with Elijah is especially important as it explains the mention of the one thousand two hundred and sixty days, which is three and a half years, for the idea of three and a half years is closely linked with Elijah as a God-appointed period in which he sought a place of refuge from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel in places prepared by God, commencing in the wilderness ( 1 Kings 17:1 with Revelation 18:1; Revelation 17:3; Revelation 17:9; compare Luke 4:25; James 5:17).

John has a habit of taking incidents in the life of Elijah and giving them new meaning Compare the seven thousand killed in the earthquake (Revelation 11:13) in contrast with the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). The false fire that comes down from Heaven (Revelation 13:13) representing an imitation Elijah. The fact that the two witnesses can prevent rain from Heaven (Revelation 11:6). So he sees a similarity between Elijah fleeing into the wilderness from the wrath of the king, and being sustained there by God, and the fleeing into the wilderness of the people of God where they too will be sustained. They are the new remnant.

Three and a half years is symbolic of a period of testing and trial. We must not assume that every mention of three and a half years refers to the same period of time. The lack of rain under Elijah was recognised as lasting for three and a half years. Thus this period became a symbol of a period of trial and tribulation.


Verse 7-8

‘And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels going forth to war with the monster, and the monster warred, and his angels. And they did not prevail neither was their place found any more in heaven.’

This occurs before the flight into the wilderness (Revelation 12:13). Michael is the angelic Prince of the people of God and it is his duty to intervene directly because the people of God are going to be under attack, an attack which will eventually result in their fleeing into the wilderness (Daniel 12:1). Michael and his angels are a comfort to the people of God, for they indicate that the supenatual powers that have previously been described do nto have it all their own way (compare Daniel 10). For the woman further travails will begin immediately on the taking away of the Son, resulting from renewed Satanic attack on God’s people. Behind the persecutions described in Acts and elsewhere are the activities of Satan seeking to destroy God’s remnant. So Michael goes into battle with him.

This battle commences even while Christ is on earth. Through the power of Christ, (we learn here with the able assistance of Michael and his angels), the strong man is bound and his house ransacked (Matthew 12:29; Mark 3:27), and Jesus can state ‘I saw Satan as lightning fall from Heaven’ (Luke 10:18) as He contemplates the power of the Spirit at work victoriously through His disciples. Through His presence on earth, and His death and resurrection and exaltation to the throne, the principalities and powers are disarmed and led in a show of victory (Colossians 2:15). And now that Christ has won the victory over sin for His people the Accuser has no place before God. He will, of course, carry on with his accusations but from a far weaker base. The whole picture is presenting powerful spiritual activity in human terms and we need not press the detail.

We can compare how Elisha appeared to be alone with his servant in carrying forward God’s purposes on earth, but he was aware of the angel forces surrounding him and assisting with the carrying out of God’s purpose (2 Kings 6:17).

This victory is of great importance for it prevents the direct access of Satan to God, which is a central thought in this passage. Because Michael triumphs through Christ’s strength (Jude 1:9), Satan no longer has direct entry to accuse God’s people as he did of old (Revelation 12:10; see Zechariah 3:1; Job 1, 2). He will of course continue to accuse day and night, as he has always done, but he must do it indirectly. Along with that, of course, his final defeat is signalled, and his power is broken. There will be other battles but he is a defeated foe.

We must unquestionably link this victory of Michael with the fact that the woman’s son, the male child, has taken His place on the throne of God. Previously Michael himself has had to be wary in his dealings with Satan (Jude 1:9), saying “the Lord rebuke you”, but the presence of the Lord on earth, and His cross and resurrection, summed up in His sharing the throne of His Father in triumph, have broken Satan’s power. Incidentally, had He wanted them, these are some of the legions Jesus could have called on in His fatal hour (Matthew 26:53), but their intervention on earth would have prevented God’s plan being fulfilled. They may fight in Heaven but He must endure His suffering on earth, for sin had to be dealt with and Michael and his angels could do nothing about that.


Verse 9

‘And the great monster was cast down, the old Serpent, he who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was cast down to the earth and his angels were cast down with him.’

As a result of the exaltation of the male child as the slain Lamb, the Devil and his angels have no further place in the heavens. Their activities there are no longer to be permitted. They are defeated. And while their presence on earth is not good news for the world, it is good news for Christians (v. 10).

Now we know for certain who this great monster is, it is the Satanas (Satan) - ‘the Adversary’, it is Diabolos (the Devil) - ‘the Slanderer’, it is the old Serpent who beguiled man into sin (Genesis 3), it is the one who deceived the whole world. As Jesus said, he is the father of lies (John 8:44). But his forcible descent from the heavens means that, when the time is right, he, or one of his angels, will be allowed to receive the key of the Abyss (Revelation 9:1). Meanwhile he will exercise his wrath on the woman and her seed.


Verse 10-11

‘And I heard a great voice in Heaven saying, “Now is come the salvation and the power and the kingship of our God, and the authority of his Christ, for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they loved not their life even unto death”.’

We have been looking at the whole panorama of saving history, and this is seen as one whole by the watchers in Heaven who recognise what it means, and what it will mean for the future.

They have seen the visions of the future that have preceded this one, of the brethren overcoming because of the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony (Revelation 6:9-11; Revelation 7:14), and this explains how it was achieved. Through the power of the cross and the defeat of Satan the Kingly Rule of God has been established, salvation has been achieved for men, the power of God has become available for man through the Spirit (Acts 1:8; Acts 2:33), and Christ has received all authority in Heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18; Acts 2:33-36), and this is demonstrated to the full by the casting down of the accuser of the brethren who never ceases to point out man’s failure. His power is broken. He can no longer point out their failure for they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

‘And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony and they loved not their life even unto death’. In their heavenly wisdom the watchers recognise that what has been accomplished here explains the future victory of the overcomers. They see the picture as one. What Christ has done means that His people have already achieved their victory, even before they face their tribulation. As Paul tells us, when His blood was shed, our blood was shed, when He rose, we rose, when He ascended into the heavenly places we ascended with Him and sat with Him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:5-6). Because of His death, and Satan’s casting out, our triumph is thus assured. So the one who speaks from Heaven can look forward and see the triumph of God’s people in the light of what he sees and of what he has seen. It has already been displayed in chapters 6 and 7, and on that basis also he can speak of it as accomplished.

Three things were required in order to be an overcomer, (1) the blood of the Lamb which cleanses from all sin and motivates their lives, (2) their witness to the truth of His word and to Him Who is the truth, as a result of being clothed in the whole armour of God (Ephesians 6:11), which is all based on His word, and (3) their readiness to die for Christ. This is the encouragement John gives in the face of coming persecution. (This use of the aorist, signifying something completed once for all, is similar to what some call the prophetic perfect, the using of a past tense to depict a future action because it is already certain).


Verse 12

‘Therefore rejoice, Oh heavens, and you who dwell in them. Woe for the earth and for the sea, for the Devil has gone down to you having great wrath, knowing that he has but a short time.’

The heavens and the Heaven dwellers can rejoice at the Devil’s defeat. These Heaven dwellers include those who have no permanent interest in earth but who look for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10), prospective Heaven dwellers. These Heaven-dwellers are in contrast to the Earth-dwellers - ‘those who dwell on the earth’ - i.e. non-Christians, a constant refrain in Revelation. It is the earth who will suffer for his downfall, for the Devil will seek to take out his wrath on them. That is why Peter can describe him as going around ‘like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).

‘Knowing that he has but a short time’. Like everyone else Satan was expecting the end of the age soon. The time when Christ would come was known to no one. Not understanding the longsuffering of God he could not believe it would be long delayed. Thus he measured his behaviour by that belief. And indeed his time was and is limited. In God’s ‘short time’ all will be over.


Verse 13

‘And when the monster saw that he was cast down to the earth he persecuted the woman who brought forth the male child, and there were given to the woman the two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time from the face of the serpent.’

So persecution comes from the fact that Satan is defeated. This persecution by the serpent begins in Acts with the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7), and continues on through the history of the early church in Jerusalem. The fleeing into the wilderness to be nourished does, as we have seen, parallel the experience of Elijah, and the period, three and a half years, is the same, but here it is stated in days to demonstrate God’s daily concern for His people. Especially in mind is the flight from Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee, from the persecutions of false ‘Messiahs’ and equally vicious Romans, at the time of the final destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

The idea of the wings of ‘the great eagle’ has in mind ‘the flying eagle’ in Revelation 4:7 which was one of the living creatures, referred to again in Revelation 8:13 as ‘a flying eagle’ with ‘a great voice’. This would suggest the participation of a living creature, one of the cherubim, in the protection of the woman, the faithful in Israel. The psalmist tells us of God that ‘he rode upon a cherub and did fly, yes, he flew on the wings of the wind’ (Psalms 18:10), and that is in mind here. The woman is privileged to ride, as it were, to safety on a cherub. In other words she has God’s special protection as she flees.

It is also connected with Exodus 19:4 where God says to Israel “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself”, i.e. to Mount Sinai in the wilderness, the place of God’s revelation of Himself and the making of the covenant. So her flight is seen as a precursor to later enjoyment of ‘the Promised Land’.

The description of the eagle as ‘a great eagle’ goes beyond just this, however, and suggests, as we have seen, the participation of the living creature. We can recognise from Exodus 19:4 that the woman was not borne away from God in her flight, but was bornetoHim. It was not a loss but a gain.

Compare how God was borne to the people of Israel in exile on the wings of the cherubim (Ezekiel 1). There His people had been forcibly taken away, but when they reached their destination they found God was there with them. (The greatest eagle of all is found in Deuteronomy 32:11, where the eagle who bore Israel is God Himself, but that was from the wilderness, not to it. God will not leave His people in the wilderness permanently).

John clearly has in mind in this description (how could he not?) the fact that the woman’s flight parallels the previous flight by the people of Israel into the wilderness for safety from the threat of Pharaoh (Exodus 14:5), where they also were fed by God. Then it was Pharaoh who sent his armies after them to his own destruction.

In Jeremiah 46:8 these armies of Egypt are in fact likened to ‘waters like rivers’ that cover the earth. ‘Egypt rises up like the Nile, and his waters toss themselves like the rivers, and he says “I will rise up, I will cover the earth, I will destroy the city and its inhabitants”.’ So Egypt and its armies are visualised in terms of the Nile whose waters like rivers seek to destroy, like a great river sweeping over the land. This picture John now takes up.


Verse 14-15

‘And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a river, that he might cause her to be carried away by the stream, and the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth and swallowed up the river which the monster cast out of his mouth.’

The water like a river coming from the dragon’s mouth can, in the first place, be compared with the fire from the locust’s mouths (Revelation 9:18). It is something spiritually destructive. An ironic contrast may be intended between believers from whose innermost being flow rivers of living water (John 7:38), and the Temple from which flowed the water of life (Ezekiel 47), and Satan from whose mouth flows a river of destructive waters. Thus it may refer to a flood of ‘false ideas’ seeking to turn God’s people from their faith, a flood which was somehow diverted ‘by God’.

At the time when large numbers of Jews were preparing to take up arms against the Romans tremendous pressure was being put on fellow Jews to participate in the insurrection. Christian Jews who had fled into the wilderness might indeed have been sought out to persuade them to participate, and John may even have known of a particularly nasty situation where this was prevented by some natural occurrence such as an earthquake, or by assistance from non-Christians giving them refuge. ‘The earth’, in contrast to Heaven, may represent such people - for in Revelation non-Christians are ‘those who dwell on earth’. (The methods used to gain support were sometimes particularly nasty for those who were obdurate. Men can easily lose control when patriotism and religious feeling go hand in hand).

Alternatively, in Isaiah 43:2 waters and rivers are pictures of tribulation and hardship that will come on the people of God, and there He promises, ‘I will be with you --- they shall not overflow you’ (compare Psalms 66:12). Thus this may refer to the waters of persecution which Satan tried to bring on those whom God was protecting. The earth is then seen as opening up to protect His people in fulfilment of His promise. Again there may be in mind non-Christian sympathetic assistance, ‘swallowing them up’ and enabling them to avoid pursuers.

Alternately it may have in mind a flood of soldiers as described in Jeremiah 46:8 above. The river of Satan being likened to ‘the river of Egypt’, and seeking to overwhelm the fleeing ‘Israel’ as at the Exodus. The earth opening up may then be referring to some natural phenomenon that diverted the soldiers from their grim duty, as the waters of the reed sea swallowed up Pharaoh’s host.

Indeed all three ideas may have been in John’s mind, the river depicting Satanic attack from all sources. Apocalyptic ideas are all embracing.

The idea of the earth or ground opening up to swallow something is found in Genesis 4:11; Numbers 16:30. They have no direct connection with this passage, but possibly the seed idea may have sprung from those passages. The emphasis is on the fact that the intervention was not a direct act of God but something natural, it was the earth and not directly Heaven that intervened. Although of course God was seen as behind the deliverance.

Whichever is in the mind of John the important fact is that Satan did his worst and God protected His people.


Verse 17

‘And the monster waxed wroth with the woman and went away to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus, and he stood on the sand of the sea.’

The mention of ‘the commandments of God’ may be intended to connect this situation with the Exodus and Mount Sinai, although ‘commandments’ is in fact a favourite word of John having also in mind the commandments of Jesus (John 14:15; John 14:21; John 15:10;1 John 2:4; 1 John 3:22; 1 John 3:24; 1 John 5:2-3; 2 John 1:6; Revelation 14:12; Revelation 22:21).

The anger of the monster, unable to snatch his prey, is now turned against ‘the rest of her seed’, i.e. the remainder other than ‘the son, the male child’. This refers to those who have become part of the children of Israel by submission to Christ. They ‘keep the commandments of God’ thus demonstrating that they have been brought within the covenant of grace of Sinai.

We must remember that what we call the ten commandments was in fact a covenant of grace whereby Yahweh, having delivered His people, declared His overlordship and what He had done for them through grace, and outlined His requirements from them as His subject people. It is in the form of a typical suzerainty treaty of that time.

Combined with keeping His commandments these ‘children’ of the true Israel also ‘hold the testimony of Jesus’, declaring their loyalty to Him because of what He has done for them as well as obeying His commandments. As they are the seed of the woman they are ‘true’ children of Israel.

‘And he stood on the sand of the sea’. Now is to be outlined the monster’s activity against the people of God through those who dwell on earth. He has failed in the wilderness sands, which proved his enemy and swallowed up his wrath, for the wilderness is never his friend and, as the place of solitude and waiting on God, always protects the people of God. So now he will attack from another position. Now he stands on the sandy shore of the great sea to see emerge from there the instruments of his wrath. The basic idea comes from Daniel 7:3. The great sea is the Mediterranean which appeared as a great sea to Israel (Numbers 34:6 and often).

To Israel the sea was an enemy. It was always seeking to break its bounds and overwhelm them, although tightly controlled by God. But unlike in other ancient literature the sea is never depicted in the Bible as out of God’s control or battling with God. He always has overwhelming mastery of it (Job 38:8-11; Psalms 65:7). Its battle is with the world.

They remembered how the sea had swallowed up the Egyptian armies (Exodus 15:10; Joshua 24:7 and often), and how it was depicted as overwhelming Babylon (Jeremiah 51:42). The psalmist also likened the sea to a proud enemy whom God controlled, symbolic of the enemies of God, who were seen in the guise of a great sea monster, probably there representing Egypt (Psalms 89:9-10 compare Ezekiel 32:2). The sea roars, like the roaring of a lion and thus again symbolises the enemies of Israel (Isaiah 5:29-30 compare Jeremiah 31:35). Psalms 65:7 compares the roaring of the seas and the waves to ‘the tumult of the peoples’ (compare Isaiah 17:12; Ezekiel 26:3). Indeed ‘the wicked are like the troubled sea, for it cannot rest, and its waters cast up mire and dirt’ (Isaiah 57:20). So the sea symbolises destructive power, the powerful threatening of the people of God, and tumult and restlessness among peoples.

‘The sand of the sea’ is also an Old Testament phrase and signifies a number beyond counting (Genesis 32:12; Genesis 41:49; Psalms 78:27; Isaiah 10:22; Jeremiah 15:8; Jeremiah 33:22; Hosea 1:10 see also 1 Samuel 13:5; 2 Samuel 17:11;1 Kings 4:20). Here therefore it is intended to bring to mind the innumerable numbers of peoples who will be used by him to try to overwhelm the people of God.

‘He stood on the sand of the sea’ is in direct contrast with the strong angel who ‘was standing on the sea and on the earth’ in Revelation 10:5. The strong angel declares the total dominion of God, Satan’s is only partial.

The sand of the sea, however, is also the impregnable barrier that the sea cannot pass (Jeremiah 5:22). Possibly there is therefore here also the idea that the dragon is standing there with a view to breaking that barrier down.

So sand and sea together can be seen as representing the nations and peoples of the world in tumult and as threatening the people of God.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Revelation 12:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/revelation-12.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, August 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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