Next we find the seven symbolic histories (Revelation 12-14). Here follows the most confusing parts of the entire word-vision book. It is not even easy to know when it begins or ends or how to outline it. The account may begin with the ending of the previous cycle. If so, Rev 11:19 serves to conclude the previous cycle but also to introduce the scene of God in His temple in heaven with lightning, thunder, an earthquake and heavy hail reminding us of similar introductions to the judge before.
The first two symbolic histories (Rev 12:1-17) show us the history of the dragon and the woman. Dividing this chapter is difficult because of the lack of structural markers. Poythress sees Rev 12:1-6 as the introduction of the characters, followed by Rev 12:7-12 as the first symbolic history and Rev 12:13-17 as the second symbolic history. Rev 12:7-17 repeats much of the same content as Rev 1:1-6, perhaps this is the best way to divide them. There simply is no consensus on how to divide up the histories, Beale even suggests the seventh should be Rev 15:2-4 because he stresses the “And I saw…” markers.
In any case, the narrative begins by introducing the woman and the dragon (Rev 12:1-6). The woman represents the church. The dragon represents the devil, aka Satan (Rev 12:9).
The woman was pregnant, about to give birth, “to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev 12:5), aka Jesus Christ. But He ascended to the throne of God (Rev 12:5) and so the woman fled into the wilderness where she will live for three and a half years (the significance of 1,260 days where months are 30 days was discussed in the previous cycle). The great red dragon had seven heads and ten horns and on his heads were seven diadems. This suggests an effort at imitating God’s perfection and that this dragon has great power (horns=power, ten=full). His tail sweeping down a third of the stars of visible heavens to the earth is symbolic for Satan’s disturbance in the invisible heavens. He unsuccessfully tried to devour the Christ child from birth and now turns his wrath upon the woman.
I should be clear that it is the way the story is told that is symbolic — Satan is real. After the ascension of Jesus to the throne of God war began between the forces of Michael and his angels and the dragon and his angels. Michael is from Daniel 10:13, 21 and 12:1 (cf. Jude 1:9). There was no longer any place for the dragon and his angels in heaven. Before the ascension of Christ, the devil was part of the heavenly court where he accused like a prosecutor the people of God before the throne of God. But they conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and “by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev 12:11). Here again we see the importance of the theme of testimony, even martyrdom. And there is a prophetic woe oracle: “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
The woman was given “two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness” where she will be fed for “a time, and times, and half a time” — three and a half times. The red dragon persecuted the woman and when it was not working he became that much more angry. He made war against “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Rev 12:17).
The third symbolic history (Rev 13:1-10, “And I saw…”) shows us the history of the beast. The beast rises out of the sea (from where chaos comes) and has ten horns and seven heads with ten diadems on the horns and blasphemous names on its heads. This beast is the image of the dragon just as the Christ child is the image of God. Satan is attempting to counterfeit God as even the “healing” suggests a counterfeit resurrection. The description of the beast is awfully hideous — with parts like a leopard, a bear, and a lion. This reminds us of the beasts in Daniel 7 that represented state power. Likewise this beast in Revelation 13 represents the sum of government, world-wide, that demands worship. This worship does not need to be literal — Poythress reminds us that democracies can be just as problematic when they pretend to be their people’s Messianic Savior. The beast was allowed to “exercise authority for forty-two months,” again the symbolic three and a half years representing the whole time from then until Christ’s return. This is an attempt to ignore that Christ has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
The fourth symbolic history (Rev 13:11-18, “And I saw…”) shows us the history of the false prophet. This second beast “had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon” (Rev 13:11). Together with the dragon who imitates the Father, and the first beast who imitates the Son, the three form an unholy ‘trinity.’ The second beast, the false prophet, imitates the work of the Holy Spirit. This false prophet is a propagandist for the state. He is able to work signs. Like the Spirit sealed those who belong to Him to protect them, the false prophet marks his followers with a seal of 666 on the forehead (again this is a vision, the mark does not have to be literal). The symbolism of 666 gets its meaning from falling short of 777 because 7 is the number of perfection (though some explain it as a contrast to 888 — the numerical value of Jesus’ name and also a highly significant number). Poythress mentions, to our interest as we have blogged about Leviathan and Behemoth before, that the first beast is like Leviathan (both coming from the sea) and the second beast is like Behemoth (both arising from the land). Sea and land is a merism for the entire earth — Satan is attempting to exercise control of it all.
The fifth symbolic history (Rev 14:1-5, “And I saw…”) shows us the history of the 144,000. We have previously touched upon the significance of this number (a number that is a multiple of 12 representing the people of God and 10 representing fullness and thus standing for all of the saints). This account shares the imagery of the first vision of Christ and the seven letters. The sexual purity mentioned is visionally spiritual purity.
The sixth symbolic history (Rev 14:6-12, “And I saw…”) shows us the three angelic messengers. These three gospel messages go forth in our preaching. The first angel calls for repentance by every nation, tribe, language and people. The mention of heaven, earth, sea, and springs of water representing the whole creation. The second angel proclaims the fall of Babylon — the center of false worship. This will be further discussed later in Revelation. The third angel shows us a vision of the coming wrath on unbelievers. Rev 14:12 serves to end this section with similar words to the end of the first beast symbolic history at the end of Rev 13:10.
Before the seventh symbolic history, like in previous cycles, there is a interlude with a promise for the church (Rev 14:13, “And I heard…”). The promise here is: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them” (Rev 14:13).
The seventh symbolic history (Rev 14:14-20, “And I saw…”) shows us the final judgment. Christ is the one seated on the cloud like a son of man, imagery from Daniel 7. There are two harvests mentioned — one of grain and one of grapes. The background of this image is Joel 3:9-16 where the harvests are parallel (in particular see Joel 3:13). In both, the former harvest calls for a sickle because it is ripe. In both, the latter one is explicitly identified as punishment. Joel says, “Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great” and here in Revelation the grapes are thrown “into the great winepress of the wrath of God” (Rev 14:19). The winepress is trodden outside the city — this is the place for the ceremonially unclean to suffer their punishment.