Applied Hermeneutics: How to Interpret a Prophecy
How to interpret Revelation is on my mind because I have been working with it lately in my His Word Is A Lamp blog series about Richard Bewes’ book The Lamb Wins. Revelation 12-13 provides an excellent opportunity for applying the rules of hermeneutics which I discussed in my last article. In Hermeneutics: How to read the Bible, I provided a simple example for each of the rules I covered.
By contrast, this article will start with John’s vision in Revelation 12-13 and apply all of those rules to it, like passing a single image through a series of Photoshop filters. By way of reminder our hermeneutical rules are:
- The Bible is it’s own best interpreter.
- “Clear” texts interpret “difficult” texts.
- Teaching [didactic] texts interpret narrative, poetic, and prophetic passages.
- We must understand the necessary and unnecessary inferences.
Using the clear to interpret the difficult
Revelation 12-13 is a “difficult” passage because of its symbols: the woman, the dragon, these two beasts, and because it’s prophetic. Prophecy is always harder to interpret than history because it hasn’t happened yet. Since this is a difficult passage, my first question should be, “Is there another passage about the same topic which can help me understand this one?”
Let’s start with the “rod of iron”. That phrase occurs 4 times in the Bible.
- “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Psalms 2:9 (ESV)”
- “And he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. Revelation 2:27 (ESV)”
- “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne… Revelation 12:5 (ESV)”
- “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. Revelation 19:15 (ESV)”
These passages identify the male child of the vision as Jesus Christ beyond any doubt. Having positively identified Jesus, we must make the necessary inference that the woman who bore Him is the nation of Israel. John proves the woman is Israel further on when he calls those who worship Jesus “the rest of her offspring [Revelation 12:17 ESV]”.
Who’s the Dragon?
John Identifies the dragon as the devil in Revelation 12:9, so we know who he is. Could the dragon simultaneously be Herod and/or the Roman empire acting as the devil’s agent? I certainly believe so since the devil was poised to eat the male child [Matthew 2:16-18 ESV] through the agency of Herod as a Roman official [Luke 1:5 ESV]. By reading Scripture this way, the clarity of the gospel narratives helps interpret the symbols of Revelation 12-13.
The other half
So far we have identified half of the characters in Revelation 12-13: the woman, the male child, and the dragon. We can identify the other three with just as much certainty, but doing so requires familiarity with Daniel 7. Even fewer people are familiar with Daniel 7 than Revelation 12 because of its mysterious prophetic language, use of symbols, and Hebrew voice [Hebrew translated into English is still sometimes difficult for English readers]. If you don’t know Daniel 7 well, take a moment to look it over before proceeding…
With that fresh in your mind, you can see how Revelation 12-13 bears great similarity to Daniel 7. We see Daniel interpret the king’s dream, telling us that these beasts are four kingdoms which would control Israel until the dispersion. History has revealed these kingdoms as
If John the Revelator doesn’t have your rapt attention at this point, he should. In Revelation 12-13, John is obviously trying to remind us of Daniel 7, by re-using all 4 of Daniel’s beasts. Therefore, we do well to recall the identity of Daniel’s creature-kingdoms.
By imposing the identities of Daniel’s creatures onto John’s composite creatures, we come to the following conclusions. John’s first creature the lion/leopard/bear [Revelation 13:1-10 ESV] is some coalition of Babylon, Persia, and Greece. Ancient Babylon is modern Iraq. Ancient Persia is modern Iran and Syria. I expect these four nations [Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Greece] to make a close alliance in the end-times. This coalition will be John’s first beast.
The second beast
John’s second beast has two horns like a lamb and the voice of a Dragon [Revelation 13:11-18 ESV]. This creature’s likeness to a lamb is meant to deceive people into thinking he is the real lamb of God, Jesus Christ. To aid him in his deception he has the power to perform miracles, signs, and wonders, to make the image of the beast speak, and to mark men as belonging to the beast. However, to the spiritually discerning, this creature’s voice will betray him. Rather than sounding like Jesus Christ, he will sound like the devil speaking through the agency of Rome.
As we interpret, remember there are slight variations. The Second beast could have some connection to Persia or Greece since Daniel saw those two kingdoms as a ram and a goat [see Daniel 8 ESV]. However, I believe that John calls the second beast “like a lamb [Revelation 13:11 ESV]” to distinguish him from Greece and Persia, which Daniel saw as mature animals. Nevertheless, we observe that John is recalling Daniel’s prophecy, and we endeavor to carry Daniel’s symbols and meaning consistently over to Revelation.
The flow of time in Revelation 12-13
Since we always experience time flowing at the same pace and only in one direction, we tend to impose that perspective onto the Bible. Normally, this presents no problem since the human writers shared our assumptions and experience about time. Prophecy requires us to ask if this is a good assumption.
Reading Revelation 12:5, “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne… [ESV]” leaves the impression that the infant Christ ascended into heaven to God’s throne. Because of the Gospels, we know John’s vision has glanced over 33 years of Jesus’ life without mention. The Gospels’ events do not serve Revelation’s purpose of conveying the enmity between the woman and the dragon, and between her offspring and the dragon. Think of Revelation 12-13 as topical, more than chronological.
Now that we see that time is not flowing normally through this vision, we need to be careful to note the events of the vision and screen them through the timeline of Bible history and prophecy to try to place them.
Interpret the order of events as John sees them
Noting what John sees, and in what order is our first step as we interpret. But we must keep in mind that John uses “and” to connect these events, not “then”. Some of these have to come after each other: the dragon can’t pour water after the woman until he has chased her. Others, however, do not require that chronological order. Revelation 12:4 describes the dragon’s tail knocking a third of the stars out of heaven, then Revelation 12:8 seems to describe the same event again.
- The sign of a pregnant woman appeared in heaven.
- Another sign appeared in heaven of a great, red dragon.
- The dragon’s tail swept down a third of heaven’s stars.
- The dragon stood before the woman about to eat her child.
- The woman bore a male child.
- The male child was caught up to God [not eaten].
- The woman fled into the wilderness to be nourished for 1,260 days.
- Michael and his angels defeat the dragon casting him and his angels from heaven.
- Verses 10-12 record a heavenly proclamation about Satan’s banishment.
- The dragon pursued the woman into the wilderness [nourished for 3 1/2 times].
- The serpent poured water like a river out of His mouth after the woman.
- The earth helped the woman by swallowing the water.
- The dragon goes off in a rage to persecute Christians.
Rick Larson does an unbelievable job in The Bethlehem Star of dating events 1 and 2 using astronomical software.
John’s fourth event [Revelation 12:4], as we have already discussed, is Herod’s failed attempt to murder the baby Jesus’. Then fast-forward 33 years until Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, where we see John’s sixth event of the male child caught up to God.
Interpret the woman’s flight into the wilderness
I have read numerous attempts to interpret the woman fleeing into the wilderness with some event in Israel’s history. However, none of these were indubitable like the interpretations I have outlined for the first six events of John’s vision. Most popular is the attempt to interpret the Jews’ dispersion with the woman’s flight into the wilderness. However, this presents numerous hermeneutical problems.
- John said God “nourished” the woman in the wilderness. If we are familiar with Jewish history since the Dispersion, nourished is the last word to come to mind characterizing that time.
- She was nourished for 1260 days or 3 1/2 times. What connection do either of those numbers have to the nearly 2,000 years since the Dispersion?
- John said the woman was given the wings of a great eagle. At what historical point has any entity symbolized by an eagle helped Israel escape into the wilderness?
- Between the place of nourishment in the wilderness, the wings of the eagle, the earth swallowing the waters, and the Dragon finally leaving her to persecute her offspring, we conclude that God is protecting Israel supernaturally and defeating the Devil’s attempts to harm her. At what point in the Christian era has this been true?
In light of these difficulties, I believe that the dragon has not yet chased the woman into the wilderness.
Now war arose in heaven…
The next item we need to interpret is the war in heaven between Michael and the devil, the devil’s defeat, and banishment. Has the devil been banished from heaven, and if so, when was he?
- Job 1:6, 2:1 tell us that Satan was able to present himself before God. Therefore, he had not been banished in Job’s day.
- In Zechariah 3:1 the prophet saw Satan accusing the high priest, Joshua, before the angel of the Lord. Therefore Satan was not banished from heaven in Zechariah’s day.
Post- and Amillennials insist that Christ bound Satan, banished him from heaven, and cast him into the bottomless pit 2,000 years ago when He ascended on high. They often quote Luke 10:18 and John 12:31 toward this end.
I question this interpretation because:
- Revelation 12:7 says Michael defeated Satan and cast him from heaven, and Revelation 20:1 says ‘an angel’ bound Satan and cast him into the bottomless pit. The Bible doesn’t say Jesus defeats Satan, but He delegates this task.
- Paul [writing after Jesus’ ascension] tells us that the devil still has access to heaven, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:11-12 (ESV)”
- Revelation 12:12 says the Devil is greatly angry because he knows his time is short. Had he been banished at Christ’s ascension 2,000 years ago— 2,000 years is hardly a short time.
- Since the devil still had access to heaven after Jesus’ ascension, then the war with Michael which banishes the devil from heaven has not happened yet.
Revelation 12-13 can’t refer to the first century or any other historical period because John is describing a union of Babylon, Persia, and Greece which has never yet been. Therefore, we can only interpret that he refers to an alliance which will take place in the future.
You are here… <——
We used the Gospels’ history to identify the first six points of John’s vision in Revelation 12-13. Points 7-10 circle back on the same events so that we can condense them into:
- Michael banishes Satan from heaven.
- Satan pursues the woman into the wilderness, pouring water after her.
- God nourishes the woman 1,260 days [3 1/2 years, a time, times, and half a time, 42 months] in the wilderness.
This is where we currently find ourselves in the scheme of John’s vision. The next event we’re looking for is Michael banishing Satan from heaven. Likely our mortal eyes will not see that event, but we will see it’s immediate successor: the dragon chasing the woman into the wilderness in his great wrath.
Familiarity with Israel’s military history since 1948, which Martin Gilbert does a remarkable job conveying in Israel: A History, shows us that God has firmly planted the people in the land. Dislodging the woman and “pursuing her into the wilderness” at this point would require precisely an event of world-ending significance. When you see that happen, know the time is short.
I hope that in this article I have shown you how applying the rules of hermeneutics in sequence can render a difficult prophetic vision in a whole new, and clearer, light.
Glory to Christ, Whom John named the Logic of God, for He is and has given us a logical and understandable Word. Amen