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Bible Commentaries

Joseph Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments
Revelation 12

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-5

Revelation 12:1-5. And there appeared a woman clothed with the sun — “It was a well-known custom,” says Lowman, “at the time of this prophecy, to represent the several virtues, and public societies, by the figure of a woman in some peculiar dress, many of which are to be seen in the Roman coins; in particular, Salus, the emblem of security and protection, is represented as a woman standing upon a globe, to represent the safety and security of the world under the emperor’s care. The consecration of the Roman emperors is expressed in their coins by a moon and stars, as in two of Faustina, to express a degree of glory superior to any on earth. Never was any image more expressive of honour and dignity than this in the vision: to stand in the midst of a glory made by the beams of the sun; and upon the moon, as above the low condition of this sublunary world; to wear a crown set with the stars of heaven, as jewels, is something more sublime than any thing whereby antiquity has represented their societies, their virtues, or their deities.” Bishop Newton explains this, and the five following verses, as follows: “St. John resumes his subject from the beginning, and represents the church (Revelation 12:1-2) as a woman, and a mother bearing children unto Christ. She is clothed with the sun, invested with the rays of Jesus Christ, the Sun of righteousness; having the moon — The Jewish new moons and festivals, as well as all sublunary things; under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars — An emblem of her being under the light and guidance of the twelve apostles. And she, being with child, cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered — St. Paul hath made use of the same metaphor, and applied it to his preaching and propagating of the gospel, in the midst of tribulation and persecution, Galatians 4:19. But the words of St. John are much stronger, and more emphatically express the pangs and struggles which the church endured from the first publication of the gospel to the time of Constantine the Great, when she was in some measure eased of her pains, and brought forth a deliverer. At the same time, there appeared a great red dragon — Which is the well-known sign or symbol of the devil and Satan, and of his agents and instruments. We find the kings and people of Egypt, who were the great persecutors of the primitive church of Israel, distinguished by this title in Psalms 74:13; Isaiah 51:9; Ezekiel 29:3; and with as much reason and propriety may the people and emperors of Rome, who were the great persecutors of the primitive church of Christ, be called by the same name, as they were actuated by the same principle. For that the Roman empire was here figured, the characters and attributes of the dragon plainly evince. He is a great red dragon; and purple or scarlet was the distinguishing colour of the Roman emperors, consuls, and generals; as it hath been since of the popes and cardinals. His seven heads, as the angel afterward (Revelation 17:9-10) explains the vision, allude to the seven mountains upon which Rome was built, and to the seven forms of government which successively prevailed there. His ten horns typify the ten kingdoms into which the Roman empire was divided; and the seven crowns upon his heads denote, that at this time the imperial power was in Rome, the ‘high city, seated on seven hills, which presides over the whole world,’ as Propertius describes it, book 3. His tail also (Revelation 12:4) drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth — That is, he subjected the third part of the princes and potentates of the earth; and the Roman empire, as we have seen before, is represented as the third part of the world. He stood before the woman, which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born — And the Roman emperors and magistrates kept a jealous, watchful eye, over the Christians from the beginning. As Pharaoh laid snares for the male children of the Hebrews, and Herod for the infant Christ, the son of Mary; so did the Roman dragon for the mystic Christ, the son of the church, that he might destroy him even in his infancy. But notwithstanding the jealousy of the Romans, the gospel was widely diffused and propagated, and the church brought many children unto Christ; and, in time, such as were promoted to the empire. She brought forth a man-child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron, Revelation 12:5 — It was predicted that Christ should rule over the nations, Psalms 2:9; but Christ, who is himself invisible in the heavens, ruleth visibly in Christian magistrates, princes, and emperors. It was therefore promised before, to Christians in general, (Revelation 2:26-27,) He that overcometh, and keepeth my words unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations, &c. But it should seem that Constantine was here particularly intended, for whose life the dragon Galerius laid many snares, but he providentially escaped them all; and notwithstanding all opposition, was caught up unto the throne of God — Was not only secured by the divine protection, but was advanced to the imperial throne, called the throne of God; for, (Romans 13:1,) there is no power but of God, &c. He too ruled all nations with a rod of iron; for he had not only the Romans, who before had persecuted the church, under his dominion, but also subdued the Scythians, Sarmatians, and other barbarous nations, who had never before been subject to the Roman empire; and, as Spanheim informs us, there are still extant medals and coins of his with these inscriptions: The subduer of the barbarous nations; the conqueror of all nations; everywhere a conqueror; and the like. What is added, Revelation 12:6, of the woman’s fleeing into the wilderness for a thousand two hundred and threescore days, is said by way of prolepsis or anticipation. For the war in heaven between Michael and the dragon, and other subsequent events, were prior, in order of time, to the flight of the woman into the wilderness; but before the prophet passes on to a new subject, he gives a general account of what happened to the woman afterward, and enters more into the particulars in their proper place.


Verses 7-12

Revelation 12:7-12. And there was war in heaven, &c. — It might reasonably be presumed that all the powers of idolatry would be strenuously exerted against the establishment of Christianity, and especially against the establishment of a Christian on the imperial throne: and these struggles and contentions between the heathen and the Christian religions are here represented by war in heaven, between the angels of darkness and angels of light. Michael was (Daniel 10:21; Daniel 12:1) the tutelar angel and protector of the Jewish Church. He performs here the same office for the Christian Church. He and the good angels, who are sent forth (Hebrews 1:14) to minister to the heirs of salvation, were the invisible agents on one side, as the devil and his evil agents were on the other. The visible actors in the cause of Christianity were the believing emperors and ministers of the word, the martyrs and confessors; and in support of idolatry, were the persecuting emperors and heathen magistrates, together with the whole train of priests and sophists. This contest lasted several years, and the final issue of it was, (Revelation 12:8-9,) that the Christian prevailed over the heathen religion; the heathen were deposed from all rule and authority, and the Christians were advanced to dominion and empire in their stead. Our Saviour said unto his disciples casting devils out of the bodies of men, (Luke 10:18,) I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. In the same figure Satan fell from heaven: and was cast out into the earth — When he was thrust out of the imperial throne; and his angels were cast out with him — Not only all the heathen priests and officers, civil and military, were cashiered, but their very gods and demons, who before were adored, became the subjects of contempt and execration. It is very remarkable that Constantine himself, and the Christians of his time, described his conquests under the same image, as if they had understood that this prophecy had received its accomplishment in him. Moreover, a picture of Constantine was set up over the palace gate, with the cross over his head, and under his feet the great enemy of mankind, who persecuted the church by the means of impious tyrants, in the form of a dragon, transfixed with a dart through the midst of his body, and falling headlong into the depth of the sea: in allusion, it is said expressly, to the divine oracles in the books of the prophets, where that evil spirit is called the dragon, and the crooked serpent. Upon this victory of the church there is introduced (Revelation 12:10) a triumphant hymn of thanksgiving for the depression of idolatry and exaltation of true religion. It was not by temporal means or arms that the Christians obtained this victory, (Revelation 12:11,) but by spiritual; by the merits and death of their Redeemer, by their constant profession of the truth, and by their patient suffering of all kinds of tortures, even unto death: and the blood of the martyrs hath been often called the seed of the church. This victory was indeed matter of joy and triumph to the blessed angels and glorified saints in heaven, (Revelation 12:12,) by whose sufferings it was in great measure obtained; but still new woes are threatened to the inhabiters of the earth; for, though the dragon was deposed, yet was he not destroyed; though idolatry was depressed, yet was it not wholly suppressed; there were still many pagans intermixed with the Christians, and the devil would incite fresh troubles and disturbances on earth, because he knew that he had but a short time — That is, it would not be long before the pagan religion should be totally abolished, and the Christian religion prevail in all the Roman empire.


Verses 13-17

Revelation 12:13-17. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth: &c. — When the dragon was thus deposed from the imperial throne, and cast unto the earth, (Revelation 12:13,) he still continued to persecute the church with equal malice, though not with equal power. He made several attempts to restore the pagan idolatry in the reign of Constantine, and afterward in the reign of Julian; he traduced and abused the Christian religion by such writers as Hierocles, Libanius, and others of the same stamp and character; he rent and troubled the church with heresies and schisms; he stirred up the favourers of the Arians to persecute and destroy the orthodox Christians. But the church was still under the protection of the empire, (Revelation 12:14,) and to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle — As God said to the children of Israel, (Exodus 19:4,) Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, &c.; so the church was supported and carried, as it were, on eagles’ wings: but the similitude is the more proper in this case, an eagle being the Roman ensign, and the two wings alluding probably to the division that was then made of the eastern and the western empire. In this manner was the church protected, and these wings were given, that she might flee into the wilderness, into a place of retirement and security, from the face of the serpent — Not that she fled into the wilderness at that time, but several years afterward; and there she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time — That is, three prophetic years and a half, which is the same period with the twelve hundred and sixty days, or years, before mentioned. So long the church is to remain in a desolate and afflicted state, during the reign of antichrist; as Elijah, while idolatry and famine prevailed in Israel, was secretly fed and nourished three years and six months in the wilderness. But before the woman fled into the wilderness, the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood, (Revelation 12:15,) with intent to wash her away. Waters, in the style of the Apocalypse, (Revelation 17:16,) signify peoples and nations; so that here was a great inundation of various nations excited by the dragon, or the friends and patrons of the old idolatry, to oppress and overwhelm the Christian religion. Such appeared plainly to have been the design of the dragon, when Stilicho, prime minister of the Emperor Honorius, invited the barbarous heathen nations, the Goths, Alans, Sueves, and Vandals, to invade the Roman empire, hoping by their means to raise his son Eucherius to the throne, who from a boy was an enemy to the Christians, and threatened to signalize the beginning of his reign with the restoration of the pagan, and abolition of the Christian religion. Nothing indeed was more likely to produce the ruin and utter subversion of the Christian Church, than the irruptions of so many barbarous heathen nations into the Roman empire. But the event proved contrary to human appearance and expectation: the earth swallowed up the flood, Revelation 12:16 — The barbarians were rather swallowed up by the Romans, than the Romans by the barbarians; the heathen conquerors, instead of imposing their own, submitted to the religion of the conquered Christians; and they not only embraced the religion, but affected even the laws, the manners, the customs, the language, and the very name of Romans. This course not succeeding according to probable expectation, the dragon did not therefore desist from his purpose, (Revelation 12:17,) but only took another method of persecuting the true sons of the church, as we shall see in the next chapter. It is said that he went to make war with the remnant of her seed, who kept the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus — Which implies that at this time there was only a remnant; that corruptions were greatly increased, and the faithful were diminished from among the children of men.

 


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Bibliography Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Revelation 12:4". Joseph Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/rbc/revelation-12.html. 1857.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, August 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19
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