And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven - In that heavenly world thus disclosed, in the very presence of God, he saw the impressive and remarkable symbol which he proceeds to describe. The word "wonder" - σημεῖον sēmeion - properly means something extraordinary, or miraculous, and is commonly rendered "sign." See Matthew 12:38-39; Matthew 16:1, Matthew 16:3-4; Matthew 24:3, Matthew 24:24, Matthew 24:30; Matthew 26:48; Mark 8:11-12; Mark 13:4, Mark 13:22; Mark 16:17, Mark 16:20; in all which, and in numerous other places in the New Testament, it is rendered "sign," and mostly in the sense of "miracle." When used in the sense of a miracle, it refers to the fact that the miracle is a sign or token by which the divine power or purpose is made known. Sometimes the word is used to denote "a sign of future things" - a portent or presage of coming events; that is, some remarkable appearances which foreshadow the future. Thus in Matthew 16:3; "signs of the times"; that is, the miraculous events which foreshadow the coming of the Messiah in his kingdom. So also in Matthew 24:3, Matthew 24:30; Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7, Luke 21:11. This seems to be the meaning here, that the woman who appeared in this remarkable manner was a portent or token of what was to occur.
A woman clothed with the sun - Bright, splendid, glorious, as if the sunbeams were her raiment. Compare Revelation 1:16; Revelation 10:1; see also Sol 6:10 - a passage which, very possibly, was in the mind of the writer when he penned this description: "Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?"
And the moon under her feet - The moon seemed to be under her feet. She seemed as if she stood on the moon, its pale light contrasted with the burning splendor of the sun, heightening the beauty of the whole picture. The woman, beyond all question, represents the church. See the notes on Revelation 12:2. Is the splendor of the sunlight designed to denote the brightness of the gospel? Is the moon designed to represent the comparatively feeble light of the Jewish dispensation? Is the fact that she stood upon the moon, or that it was under her feet, designed to denote the superiority of the gospel to the Jewish dispensation? Such a supposition gives much beauty to the symbol, and is not foreign to the nature of symbolic language.
And upon her head a crown of twelve stars - A diadem in which there were placed twelve stars. That is, there were twelve sparkling gems in the crown which she wore. This would, of course, greatly increase the beauty of the vision; and there can be no doubt that the number twelve here is significant. If the woman here is designed to symbolize the church, then the number twelve has, in all probability, some allusion either to the twelve tribes of Israel as being a number which one who was born and educated as a Jew would be likely to use (compare James 1:1), or to the twelve apostles - an allusion which, it may be supposed, an apostle would be more likely to make. Compare Matthew 19:28; Revelation 21:14.
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth ... - That is, there would be something which would be properly represented by a woman in such circumstances.
The question now is, what is referred to by this woman? And here it need hardly be said that there has been, as in regard to almost every other part of the Book of Revelation, a great variety of interpretations. It would be endless to undertake to examine them, and would not be profitable if it could be done; and it is better, therefore, and more in accordance with the design of these notes, to state briefly what seems to me to be the true interpretation:
(1) The woman is evidently designed to symbolize the church; and in this there is a pretty general agreement among interpreters. The image, which is a beautiful one, was very familiar to the Jewish prophets. See the notes on Isaiah 1:8; Isaiah 47:1; compare Ezekiel 16.
(2) but still the question arises, to what time this representation refers: whether to the church before the birth of the Saviour, or after? According to the former of these opinions, it is supposed to refer to the church as giving birth to the Saviour, and the "man child" that is born Revelation 12:5 is supposed to refer to Christ, who "sprang from the church" - κατὰ σάρκα kata sarka - according to the flesh (Prof. Stuart, vol. 2, p. 252). The church, according to this view, is not simply regarded as Jewish, but, in a more general and theocratic sense, as "the people of God." "From the Christian church, considered as Christian, he could not spring; for this took its rise only after the time of his public ministry. But from the bosom of the "people of God" the Saviour came. This church Judaical indeed (at the time of his birth) in respect to rites and forms, but to become Christian after he had exercised his ministry in the midst of it, might well be represented here by the woman which is described in Revelation 12." (Prof. Stuart). But to this view there are some, as it seems to me, unanswerable objections. For:
(a) there seems to be a harshness and incongruity in representing the Saviour as the Son of the church, or representing the church as giving birth to him. Such imagery is not found elsewhere in the Bible, and is not in accordance with the language which is employed, where Christ is rather represented as the Husband of the church than the Son: "Prepared as a bride adorned for her husband," Revelation 21:2. "I will show thee the bride, the Lamb's wife," Revelation 21:9; compare Isaiah 54:5; Isaiah 61:10; Isaiah 62:5.
(b) If this interpretation be adopted, then this must refer to the Jewish church, and thus the woman will personify the Jewish community before the birth of Christ. But this seems contrary to the whole design of the Apocalypse, which has reference to the Christian church, and not to the ancient dispensation.
(c) If this interpretation be adopted, then the statement about the dwelling in the wilderness for a period of 1260 days or years Revelation 12:14 must be assigned to the Jewish community - a supposition every way improbable and untenable. In what sense could this be true? When did anything happen to the Jewish people that could, with any show of probability, be regarded as the fulfillment of this?
(d) It, may be added, that the statement about the "man child" Revelation 12:5 is one that can with difficulty be reconciled to this supposition. In what sense was this true, that the "man child" was "caught up unto God, and to his throne?" The Saviour, indeed, ascended to heaven, but it was not, as here represented, that he might be protected from the danger of being destroyed; and when he did ascend, it was not as a helpless and unprotected babe, but as a man in the full maturity of his powers. The other opinion is, that the woman here refers to the Christian church, and that the object is to represent that church as about to be enlarged - represented by the condition of the woman, Revelation 12:2. A beautiful woman appears, clothed with light - emblematic of the brightness and purity of the church; with the moon under her feet - the ancient and comparatively obscure dispensation now made subordinate and humble; with a glittering diadem of twelve stars on her head - the stars representing the usual well-known division of the people of God into twelve parts - as the stars in the American flag denote the original states of the Union; and in a condition Revelation 12:2 which showed that the church was to be increased.
The time there referred to is at the early period of the history of the church, when, as it were, it first appears on the theater of things, and going forth in its beauty and majesty over the earth. John sees this church, as it was about to spread in the world, exposed to a mighty and formidable enemy - a hateful dragon - stationing itself to prevent its increase, and to accomplish its destruction. From that impending danger it is protected in a manner that would he well represented by the saving of the child of the woman, and bearing it up to heaven, to a place of safety - an act implying that, notwithstanding all dangers, the progress and enlargement of the church was ultimately certain. In the meantime, the woman herself flees into the wilderness - an act representing the obscure, and humble, and persecuted state of the church - until the great controversy is determined which is to have the ascendency - God or the Dragon. In favor of this interpretation, the following considerations may be suggested:
(a) It is the natural and obvious interpretation.
(b) If it be admitted that John meant to describe what occurred in the world at the time when the true church seemed to be about to extend itself over the earth, and when that prosperity was checked by the rise of the papal power, the symbol employed would be strikingly expressive and appropriate.
(c) It accords with the language elsewhere used in the Scriptures when referring to the increase of the church. "Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child. Who hath heard such a thing? As soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children," Isaiah 66:7-8. "Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord," Isaiah 54:1. "The children which thou shalt have, after thou shalt have lost the other, shall say again in thy ears, The place is too strait for me; give place to me that I may dwell," Isaiah 49:20. The comparison of the church to a woman as the mother of children, is one that is very common in the Scriptures.
(d) The future destiny of the child and of the woman agrees with this supposition. The child is caught up to heaven, Revelation 12:5 - emblematic of the fact that God will protect the church, and not suffer its increase to be cut off and destroyed; and the woman is driven for 1260 years into the wilderness and nourished there, Revelation 12:14 - emblematic of the long period of obscurity and persecution in the true church, and yet of the fact that it would be protected and nourished. The design of the whole, therefore, I apprehend, is to represent the peril of the church at the time when it was about to be greatly enlarged, or in a season of prosperity, from the rise of a formidable enemy that would stand ready to destroy it. I regard this, therefore, as referring to the time of the rise of the papacy, when, but for that formidable, corrupting, and destructive power, it might have been hoped that the church would have spread all over the world. In regard to the rise of that power, see all that I have to say, or can say, in the notes on Daniel 7:24-28.
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
And there appeared another wonder in heaven - Represented as in heaven. See the notes on Revelation 12:1. That is, he saw this as occurring at the time when the church was thus about to increase.
And behold a great red dragon - The word rendered "dragon" - δράκων drakōn - occurs, in the New Testament, only in the book of Revelation, where it is uniformly rendered as here - "dragon:" Revelation 12:3-4, Revelation 12:7,Revelation 12:9, Revelation 12:13, Revelation 12:16-17; Revelation 13:2, Revelation 13:4,Revelation 13:11; Revelation 16:13; Revelation 20:2. In all these places there is reference to the same thing. The word properly means "a large serpent"; and the allusion in the word commonly is to some serpent, perhaps such as the anaconda, that resides in a desert or wilderness. See a full account of the ideas that prevailed in ancient times respecting the dragon, in Bochart, Hieroz. lib. iii. cap. xiv., vol. ii. pp. 428-440. There was much that was fabulous respecting this monster, and many notions were attached to the dragon which did not exist in reality, and which were ascribed to it by the imagination at a time when natural history was little understood. The characteristics ascribed to the dragon, according to Bochart, are, that it was distinguished:
(a) for its vast size;
(b) that it had something like a beard or dew-lap;
(c) that it had three rows of teeth;
(d) that its color was black, red, yellow, or ashy;
(e) that it had a wide mouth;
(f) that in its breathing it not only drew in the air, but also birds that were flying over it; and,
(g) that its hiss was terrible.
Occasionally, also, feet and wings were attributed to the dragon, and sometimes a lofty crest. The dragon, according to Bochart, was supposed to inhabit waste places and solitudes (compare the notes on Isaiah 13:22), and it became, therefore, an object of great terror. It is probable that the original of this was a huge serpent, and that all the other circumstances were added by the imagination. The prevailing ideas in regard to it, however, should be borne in mind, in order to see the force and propriety of the use of the word by John. Two special characteristics are stated by John in the general description of the dragon: one is, its red color; the other, that it was great. In regard to the former, as above mentioned, the dragon was supposed to be black, red, yellow, or ashy. See the authorities referred to in Bochart, ut sup., pp. 435, 436. There was doubtless a reason why the one seen by John should be represented as red. As to the other characteristic - great - the idea is that it was a huge monster, and this would properly refer to some mighty, terrible power which would be properly symbolized by such a monster.
Having seven heads - It was not unusual to attribute many heads to monsters, especially to fabulous monsters, and these greatly increased the terror of the animal. "Thus Cerberus usually has three heads assigned to him; but Hesiod (Theog. 312) assigns him fifty, and Horace (Ode II. 13, 34) one hundred. So the Hydra of the Lake Lerna, killed by Hercules, had fifty heads (Virgil, Aen. vi. 576); and in Kiddushim, fol. 29, 2, rabbi Achse is said to have seen a demon like a dragon with seven heads" (Prof. Stuart, in loco). The seven heads would somehow denote power, or seats of power. Such a number of heads increase the terribleness, and, as it were, the vitality of the monster. What is here represented would be as terrible and formidable as such a monster; or such a monster would appropriately represent what was designed to be symbolized here. The number seven may be used here "as a perfect number," or merely to heighten the terror of the image; but it is more natural to suppose that there would be something in what is here represented which would lay the foundation for the use of this number. There would be something either in the origin of the power; or in the union of various powers now combined in the one represented by the dragon; or in the seat of the power, which this would properly symbolize. Compare the notes on Daniel 7:6.
And ten horns - Emblems of power, denoting that, in some respects, there were ten powers combined in this one. See the notes on Daniel 7:7-8, Daniel 7:20, Daniel 7:24. There can be little doubt that John had those passages of Daniel in his eye, and perhaps as little that the reference is to the same thing. The meaning is, that, in some respects, there would be a tenfold origin or division of the power represented by the dragon.
And seven crowns upon his heads - Greek, "diadems." See the notes on Revelation 9:7. There is a reference here to some kingly power, and doubtless John had some kingdom or sovereignty in his eye that would be properly symbolized in this manner. The method in which these heads and horns were arranged on the dragon is not stated, and is not material. All that is necessary in the explanation is, that there was something in the power referred to that would be properly represented by the seven heads, and something by the ten horns.
In the application of this, it will be necessary to inquire what was properly symbolized by these representations, and to refer again to these particulars with this view:
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven - The word rendered "drew" - συρω surō - means to "draw, drag, haul." Prof. Stuart renders it "drew along"; and explains it as meaning that "the danger is represented as being in the upper region of the air, so that his tail may be supposed to interfere with and sweep down the stars, which, as viewed by the ancients, were all set in the visible expanse or welkin." So Daniel 8:10, speaking of the little horn, says that "it waxed great, even to the host of heaven, and it cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground." See the notes on that passage. The main idea here undoubtedly is that of power, and the object of John is to show that the power of the dragon was as if it extended to the stars, and as if it dragged down a third part of them to the earth, or swept them away with its tail, leaving two-thirds unaffected.
A power that would sweep them all away would be universal; a power that would sweep away one-third only would represent a dominion of that extent only. The dragon is represented as floating in the air - a monster extended along the sky - and one-third of the whole expanse was subject to his control. Suppose, then, that the dragon here was designed to represent the Roman pagan power; suppose that it referred to that power about to engage in the work of persecution, and at a time when the church was about to be greatly enlarged, and to fill the world; suppose that it referred to a time when but one-third part of the Roman world was subject to pagan influence, and the remaining two-thirds were, for some cause, safe from this influence - all the conditions here referred to would be fulfilled. Now it so happens that at a time when the "dragon" had become a common standard in the Roman armies, and had in some measure superseded the eagle, a state of things did exist which well corresponds with this representation.
There were times under the emperors when, in a considerable part of the empire, after the establishment of Christianity, the church enjoyed protection, and the Christian religion was tolerated, while in other parts paganism still prevailed, and waged a bitter warfare with the church. "Twice, at least, before the Roman empire became, divided permanently into the two parts, the Eastern and the Western, there was a "tripartite" division of the empire. The first occurred 311 a.d., when it was divided between Constantine, Licinius, and Maximin; the other 337 a.d., on the death of Constantine, when it was divided between his three sons, Constantine, Constans, and Constantius." "In two-thirds of the empire, embracing its whole European and African territory, Christians enjoyed toleration; in the other, or Asiatic portion, they were still, after a brief and uncertain respite, exposed to persecution, in all its bitterness and cruelty as before" (Elliott). I do not deem it absolutely essential, however, in order to a fair exposition of this passage, that we should be able to refer to minute historical facts with names and dates. A sufficient fulfillment is found if there was a period when the church, bright, glorious, and prosperous, was apparently about to become greatly enlarged, but when the monstrous pagan power still held its sway over a considerable part of the world, exposing the church to persecution. Even after the establishment of the church in the empire, and the favor shown to it by the Roman government, it was long before the pagan power ceased to rage, and before the church could be regarded as safe.
And the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child - To prevent the increase and spread of the church in the world.
And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
And she brought forth a man child - Representing, according to the view above taken, the church in its increase and prosperity - as if a child were born that was to rule over all nations. See the notes on Revelation 12:2.
Who was to rule all nations - That is, according to this view, the church thus represented was destined to reign in all the earth, or all the earth was to become subject to its laws. Compare the notes on Daniel 7:13-14.
With a rod of iron - The language used here is derived from Psalm 2:9; "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron." The form of the expression here used, "who was to rule" - ὅς μέλλει ποιμαίνειν hos mellei poimainein - is derived from the Septuagint translation of the Psalm - ποιμαινεῖς poimaineis - "thou shalt rule them"; to wit, as a shepherd does his flock. The reference is to such control as a shepherd employs in relation to his flock - protecting, guarding, and defending them, with the idea that the flock is under his care; and, on the supposition that this refers to the church, it means that it would yet have the ascendency or the dominion over the earth. The meaning in the phrase, "with a red of iron," is, that the dominion would be strong or irresistible - as an iron scepter is one that cannot be broken or resisted. The thoughts here expressed, therefore, are:
(a) that the church would become universal - or that the principles of truth and righteousness would prevail everywhere on the earth;
(b) that the ascendency of religion over the understandings and consciences of people would be irresistible - as firm as a government administered under a scepter of iron; yet,
(c) that it would be rather of a character of protection than of force or violence, like the sway which a shepherd wields over his flock.
I understand the "man child" here, therefore, to refer to the church in its increase under the Messiah, and the idea to be, that that church was, at the time referred to, about to be enlarged, and that, though its increase was opposed, yet it was destined ultimately to assert a mild sway over all the world. The time here referred to would seem to be some period in the early history of the church when religion was likely to be rapidly propagated, and when it was opposed and retarded by violent persecution - perhaps the last of the persecutions under the pagan Roman empire.
And her child was caught up unto God - This is evidently a symbolical representation. Some event was to occur, or some divine interposition was to take place, as if the child thus born were caught up from the earth to save it from death, and was rendered secure by being in the presence of God, and near his throne. It cannot be supposed that anything like this would "literally" occur. Any divine interposition to protect the church in its increase, or to save it from being destroyed by the dragon - the fierce pagan power - would be properly represented by this. Why may we not suppose the reference to be to the time of Constantine, when the church came under his protection; when it was effectually and finally saved from pagan persecution; when it was rendered safe from the enemy that waited to destroy it? On the supposition that this refers to an increasing but endangered church, in whose defense a civil power was raised up, exalting Christianity to the throne, and protecting it from danger, this would be well represented by the child caught up to heaven.
This view may derive confirmation from some well-known facts in history. The old pagan power was concentrated in Maximin, who was emperor from the Nile to the Bosphorus, and who raged against the gospel and the church "with Satanic enmity." "Infuriate at the now imminent prospect of the Christian body attaining establishment in the empire, Maximin renewed the persecution against Christians within the limits of his own dominion; prohibiting their assemblies, and degrading, and even killing their bishops." Compare Gibbon, 1:325, 326. The last struggle of pagan Rome to destroy the church by persecution, before the triumph of Constantine, and the public establishment of the Christian religion, might be well represented by the attempt of the dragon to destroy the child; and the safety of the church, and its complete deliverance from pagan persecution, by the symbol of a child caught up to heaven, and placed near the throne of God. The persecution under Maximin was the last struggle of paganism to retain the supremacy, and to crush Christianity in the empire. "Before the decisive battle," says Milner, "Maximin vowed to Jupiter that, if victorious, he would abolish the Christian name. The contest between Yahweh and Jupiter was now at its height, and drawing to a crisis."
The result was the defeat and death of Maximin, and the termination of the efforts of paganism to destroy Christianity by force. Respecting this event, Mr. Gibbon remarks, "The defeat and death of Maximin soon delivered the church from the last and most implacable of her enemies," 1:326. Christianity was, after that, rendered safe from pagan persecution. Mr. Gibbon says, "The gratitude of the church has exalted the virtues of the generous patron who seated Christianity on the throne of the Roman world." If, however, it should be regarded as a forced and fanciful interpretation to suppose that the passage before us refers to this specific event, yet the general circumstances of the times would furnish a fulfillment of what is here said:
(a) The church would be well represented by the beautiful woman.
(b) The prospect of its increase and universal dominion would be well represented by the birth of the child.
(c) The furious opposing pagan power would be well represented by the dragon in its attempts to destroy the child.
(d) The safety of the church would be well represented by the symbol of the child caught up to God, and placed near his throne.
And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
And the woman - The woman representing the church. See the notes at Revelation 12:1.
Fled - That is, she fled in the manner, and at the time, stated in Revelation 12:14. John here evidently anticipates, by a summary statement, what he relates more in detail in Revelation 12:14-17. He had referred Revelation 12:2-5 to what occurred to the child in its persecutions, and he here alludes, in general, to what befell the true church as compelled to flee into obscurity and safety. Having briefly referred to this, the writer Revelation 12:7-13 gives an account of the efforts of Satan consequent on the removal of the child to heaven.
Into the wilderness - On the meaning of the word "wilderness" in the New Testament, see the notes on Matthew 3:1. It means a desert place, a place where there are few or no inhabitants; a place, therefore, where one might be concealed and unknown - remote from the habitations and the observations of people. This would well represent the fact, that the true church became for a time obscure and unknown - as if it had fled away from the habitations of people, and had retired to the solitude and loneliness of a desert. Yet even there Revelation 12:14, Revelation 12:16 it would be mysteriously nourished, though seemingly driven out into wastes and solitudes, and having its abode among the rocks and sands of a desert.
Where she hath a place prepared of God - A place where she might be safe, and might be kept alive. The meaning is, that during that time the true church, though obscure and almost unknown, would be the object of the divine protection and care - a beautiful representation of the church during the corruptions of the papacy and the darkness of the middle ages.
That they should feed her - That they should "nourish" or "sustain" her - τρέφωσιν trephōsin - to wit, as specified in Revelation 12:14, Revelation 12:16. Those who were to do this, represented by the word "they," are not particularly mentioned, and the simple idea is that she would be nourished during that time. That is, stripped of the figure, the church during that time would find true friends, and would be kept alive. It is hardly necessary to say that this has, in fact, occurred in the darkest periods of the history of the church.
A thousand two hundred and threescore days - That is, regarding these as prophetic days, in which a day denotes a year, twelve hundred and sixty years. The same period evidently is referred to in Revelation 12:14, in the words "for a time, and times, and half a time." And the same period is undoubtedly referred to in Daniel 7:25; "And they shall be given into his hand until a time, and times, and the dividing of time." For a full consideration of the meaning of this language, and its application to the papacy, see the notes on Daniel 7:25. The full investigation there made of the meaning and application of the language renders its consideration here unnecessary. I regard it here, as I do there, as referring to the proper continuance of the papal power, during which the true church would remain in comparative obscurity, as if driven into a desert. Compare the notes on Revelation 11:2. The meaning here is, that during that period the true church would not become wholly extinct. It would have an existence upon the earth, but its final triumph would be reserved for the time when this great enemy should be finally overthrown. Compare the notes on Revelation 12:14-17.
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
And there was war in heaven - There was a state of things existing in regard to the woman and the child - the church in the condition in which it would then be - which would be well represented by a war in heaven; that is, by a conflict between the powers of good and evil, of light and darkness. Of course it is not necessary to understand this literally, anymore than the other symbolical representations in the book. All that is meant is, that a vision passed before the mind of John as if there was a conflict, in regard to the church, between the angels in heaven and Satan. There is a vision of the persecuted church - of the woman fleeing into the desert - and the course of the narrative is here interrupted by going back Revelation 12:7-13 to describe the conflict which led to this result, and the fact that Satan, as it were cast out of heaven, and unable to achieve a victory there, was suffered to vent his malice against the church on earth. The seat of this warfare is said to be heaven. This language sometimes refers to heaven as it appears to us - the sky - the upper regions of the atmosphere, and some have supposed that that was the place of the contest. But the language in Revelation 11:19; Revelation 12:1 (see the notes on those places), would rather lead us to refer it to heaven considered as lying beyond the sky. This accords, too, with other representations in the Bible, where Satan is described as appearing before God, and among the sons of God. See the notes on Job 1:6. Of course this is not to be understood as a real transaction, but as a symbolical representation of the contest between good and evil - as if there was a war waged in heaven between Satan and the leader of the heavenly hosts.
Michael - There have been very various opinions as to who Michael is. Many Protestant interpreters have supposed that Christ is meant. The reasons usually alleged for this opinion, many of which are very fanciful, may be seen in Hengstenberg (Die Offenbarung des heiliges Johannes), 1:611-622. The reference to Michael here is probably derived from Daniel 10:13; Daniel 12:1. In those places he is represented as the guardian angel of the people of God; and it is in this sense, I apprehend, that the passage is to be understood here. There is no evidence in the name itself, or in the circumstances referred to, that Christ is intended; and if he had been, it is inconceivable why he was not referred to by his own name, or by some of the usual appellations which John gives him. Michael, the archangel, is here represented as the guardian of the church, and as contending against Satan for its protection. Compare the notes on Daniel 10:13. This representation accords with the usual statements in the Bible respecting the interposition of the angels in behalf of the church (see the notes on Hebrews 1:14), and is one which cannot be proved to be unfounded. All the analogies which throw any light on the subject, as well as the uniform statements of the Bible, lead us to suppose that good beings of other worlds feel an interest in the welfare of the redeemed church below.
And his angels - The angels under him. Michael is represented as the archangel, and all the statements in the Bible suppose that the heavenly hosts are distributed into different ranks and orders. See the Jde 1:9 note; Ephesians 1:21 note. If Satan is permitted to make war against the church, there is no improbability in supposing that, in those higher regions where the war is carried on, and in those aspects of it which lie beyond the power and the knowledge of man, good angels should be employed to defeat his plans.
Fought - See the notes on Jde 1:9.
Against the dragon - Against Satan. See the notes at Revelation 12:3.
And the dragon fought and his angels - That is, the master-spirit - Satan, and those under him. See the notes on Matthew 4:1. Of the nature of this warfare nothing is definitely stated. Its whole sphere lies beyond mortal vision, and is carried on in a manner of which we can have little conception. What weapons Satan may use to destroy the church, and in what way his efforts may be counteracted by holy angels, are points on which we can have little knowledge. It is sufficient to know that the fact of such a struggle is not improbable, and that Satan is successfully resisted by the leader of the heavenly host.
And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
And prevailed not - Satan and his angels failed in their purpose.
Neither was their place found any more in heaven - They were cast out, and were seen there no more. The idea is, that they were defeated and driven away, though for a time they were suffered to carry on the warfare elsewhere.
And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
And the great dragon was cast out - See the notes on Revelation 12:3. That there may be an allusion in the language here to what actually occurred in some far distant period of the past, when Satan was ejected from heaven, there can be no reason to doubt. Our Saviour seems to refer to such an event in the language which he uses when he says Luke 10:18, "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven"; and Jude, perhaps Revelation 12:6, may refer to the same event. All that we know on the subject leads us to suppose that at some time there was a revolt among the angels, and that the rebellious part were cast out of heaven, for an allusion to this is not infrequent in the Scriptures. Still the event here referred to is a symbolical representation of what could occur at a later period, when the church would be about to spread and he triumphant, and when Satan would wage a deadly war against it. That opposition would be as if he made war on Michael the archangel, and the heavenly hosts, and his failure would be as great as if he were vanquished and cast out of heaven.
That old serpent - This doubtless refers to the serpent that deceived Eve (Genesis 3:1-11; Revelation 20:2; compare the notes on 2 Corinthians 11:3); and this passage may be adduced as a proof that the real tempter of Eve was the devil, who assumed the form of a serpent. The word "old" here refers to the fact that his appearance on earth was at an early stage of the world's history, and that he had long been employed in the work which is here attributed to him - that of opposing the church.
Called the devil - To whom the name devil is given. That is, this is the same being that is elsewhere and commonly known by that name. See the notes on Matthew 4:1.
And Satan - Another name given to the same being - a name, like the other, designed to refer to something in his character. See it explained in the notes on Job 1:6.
He was cast out into the earth - That is, he was not suffered to pursue his designs in heaven, but was cast down to the earth, where he is permitted for a time to carry on his warfare against the church. According to the interpretation proposed above, this refers to the period when there were indications that God was about to set up his kingdom on the earth. The language, however, is such as would be used on the supposition that there had been, at some period, a rebellion in heaven, and that Satan and his followers had been cast out to return there no more. It is difficult to explain this language except on that supposition; and such a supposition is, in itself, no more improbable than the apostasy and rebellion of man.
And his angels were cast out with him - They shared the lot of their leader. As applicable to the state of things to which this refers, the meaning is, that all were overthrown; that no enemy of the church would remain unsubdued; that the victory would be final and complete. As applicable to the event from which the language is supposed to have been derived - the revolt in heaven - the meaning is, that the followers in the revolt shared the lot of the leader, and that all who rebelled were ejected from heaven. The first and the only revolt in heaven was quelled; and the result furnished to the universe an impressive proof that none who rebelled there would be forgiven - that apostasy so near the throne could not be pardoned.
And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.
And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven - The great enemy was expelled; the cause of God and truth was triumphant; and the conquering hosts united in celebrating the victory. This representation of a song, consequent on victory, is in accordance with the usual representations in the Bible. See the song of Moses at the Red Sea, Exodus 15; the song of Deborah, Judges 5; the song of David when the Lord had delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies, 2 Samuel 22; and Isaiah 12:25. On no occasion could such a song be more appropriate than on the complete routing and discomfiture of Satan and his rebellious hosts. Viewed in reference to the time here symbolized, this would relate to the certain triumph of the church and of truth on the earth; in reference to the language, there is an allusion to the joy and triumph of the heavenly hosts when Satan and his apostate legions were expelled.
Now is come salvation - That is, complete deliverance from the power of Satan.
And strength - That is, now is the mighty power of God manifested in casting down and subduing the great enemy of the church.
And the kingdom of our God - The reign of our God. See the notes on Matthew 3:2. That is now established among people, and God will henceforward rule. This refers to the certain ultimate triumph of his cause in the world.
And the power of his Christ - His anointed; that is, the kingdom of Christ as the Messiah, or as anointed and set apart to rule over the world. See the notes on Matthew 1:1.
For the accuser of our brethren is cast down - The phrase "our brethren" shows by whom this song is celebrated. It is sung in heaven; but it is by those who belonged to the redeemed church, and whose brethren were still suffering persecution and trial on the earth. It shows the tenderness of the tie which unites all the redeemed as brethren, whether on earth or in heaven; and it shows the interest which they "who have passed the flood" have in the trials, the sorrows, and the triumphs of those who are still upon the earth. We have here another appellation given to the great enemy - "accuser of the brethren." The word used here - κατήγορος katēgoros, in later editions of the New Testament κατήγωρ katēgōr - means properly "an accuser," one who blames another, or charges another with crime. The word occurs in John 8:10; Acts 23:30, Acts 23:35; Acts 24:8; Acts 25:16, Acts 25:18; Revelation 12:10, in all which places it is rendered "accuser" or "accusers," though only in the latter place applied to Satan. The verb frequently occurs, Matthew 12:10; Matthew 27:12; Mark 3:2; Mark 15:3, et al.
The description of Satan as an accuser accords with the opinion of the ancient Hebrews in regard to his character. Thus he is represented in Job 1:9-11; Job 2:4-5; Zechariah 3:1-2; 1 Chronicles 21:1. The phrase "of the brethren" refers to Christians, or to the people of God; and the meaning here is, that one of the characteristics of Satan - a characteristic so well known as to make it proper to designate him by it - is that he is an accuser of the righteous; that he is employed in bringing against them charges affecting their character and destroying their influence. The propriety of this appellation cannot be doubted. It is, as it has always been, one of the characteristics of Satan - one of the means by which he keeps up his influence in the world - to bring accusations against the people of God. Thus, under his suggestions, and by his agents, they are charged with hypocrisy; with insincerity; with being influenced by bad motives; with pursuing sinister designs under the cloak of religion; with secret vices and crimes. Thus it was that the martyrs were accused; thus it is that unfounded accusations are often brought against ministers of the gospel, palsying their power and diminishing their influence, or that when a professed Christian falls the church is made to suffer by an effort to cast suspicion on all who bear the Christian name. Perhaps the most skillful thing that Satan does, and the thing by which he most contributes to diminish the influence of the church, is in thus causing "accusations" to be brought against the people of God.
Is cast down - The period here referred to was, doubtless, the time when the church was about to be established and to flourish in the world, and when accusations would be brought against Christians by various classes of calumniators and informers. It is well known that in the early ages of Christianity crimes of the most horrid nature were charged on Christians, and that it was by these slanders that the effort was made to prevent the extension of the Christian church.
Which accused them before our God - See the notes on Job 1:9-10. The meaning is, that he accused them, as it were, in the very presence of God.
Day and night - He never ceased bringing these accusations, and sought by the perseverance and constancy with which they were urged to convince the world that there was no sincerity in the church and no reality in religion.
And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
And they overcame him - That is, he was foiled in his attempt thus to destroy the church. The reference here, undoubtedly, is primarily to the martyr age and to the martyr spirit; and the meaning is, that religion had not become extinct by these accusations, as Satan hoped it would be, but lived and triumphed. By their holy lives, by their faithful testimony, by their patient sufferings, they showed that all these accusations were false, and that the religion which they professed Was from God, and thus in fact gained a victory over their accuser. Instead of being themselves subdued, Satan himself was vanquished, and the world was constrained to acknowledge that the persecuted religion had a heavenly origin. No design was ever more ineffectual than that of crushing the church by persecution, no victory was ever more signal than what was gained when it could be said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
By the blood of the Lamb - The Lord Jesus - the Lamb of God. See the notes at Revelation 5:6; compare the notes on John 1:29. The blood of Christ was that by which they were redeemed, and it was in virtue of the efficacy of the atonement that they were enabled to achieve the victory. Compare the notes on Philippians 4:13. Christ himself achieved a victory over Satan by his death (see the Colossians 2:15 note; Hebrews 2:15 note), and it is in virtue of the victory which he thus achieved that we are now able to triumph over our great foe.
"I ask them whence their victory came.
They, with united breath,
Ascribe their conquest to the Lamb,
Their triumph to his death."
And by the word of their testimony - The faithful testimony which they bore to the truth. That is, they adhered to the truth in their sufferings, they declared their belief in it, even in the pains of martyrdom; and it was by this that they overcame the great enemy - that is, by this that the belief in the gospel was established and maintained in the world. The reference here is to the effects of persecution and to the efforts of Satan to drive religion from the world by persecution. John says that the result as he saw it in vision was, that the persecuted church bore a faithful testimony to the truth, and that the great enemy was overcome.
And they loved not their lives unto the death - They did not so love their lives that they were unwilling to die as martyrs. They did not shrink back when threatened with death, but remained firm in their attachment to their Saviour, and left their dying testimony to the truth and power of religion. It was by these means that Christianity was established in the world, and John, in the scene before us, saw it thus triumphant, and saw the angels and the redeemed in heaven celebrating the triumph. The result of the attempts to destroy the Christian religion by persecution demonstrated that it was to triumph. No more mighty power could be employed to crush it than was employed by the Roman emperors; and when it was seen that Christianity could survive those efforts to crush it it was certain that it was destined to live forever.
Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.
Therefore rejoice, ye heavens - It is not unusual in the Scriptures to call on the heavens and the earth to sympathize with the events that occur. Compare the notes on Isaiah 1:2. Here the heavens are called on to rejoice because of the signal victory which it was seen would be achieved over the great enemy. Heaven itself was secure from any further rebellion or invasion, and the foundation was laid for a final victory over Satan everywhere.
And ye that dwell in them - The angels and the redeemed. This is an instance of the sympathy of the heavenly inhabitants - the unfallen and holy beings before the throne - with the church on earth, and with all that may affect its welfare. Compare the notes on 1 Peter 1:12.
Woe to the inhabiters of the earth - This is not an imprecation, or a wish that woe might come upon them, but a prediction that it would. The meaning is this: Satan would ultimately be entirely overcome - a fact that was symbolized by his being cast out of heaven; but there would be still temporary war upon the earth, as if he were permitted to roam over the world for a time and to spread woe and sorrow there.
And of the sea - Those who inhabit the islands of the sea and those who are engaged in commerce. The meaning is, that the world as such would have occasion to mourn - the dwellers both on the land and on the sea.
For the devil is come down unto you - As if cast out of heaven.
Having great wrath - Wrath shown by the symbolical war with Michael and his angels Revelation 12:7; wrath increased and inflamed because he has been discomfited; wrath the more concentrated because he knows that his time is limited.
Because he knoweth that he hath but a short time - That is, he knows that the time is limited in which he will be permitted to wage war with the saints on the earth. There is allusion elsewhere to the fact that the time of Satan is limited, and that he is apprised of that. Thus in Matthew 8:29, "Art thou come hither to torment us before the time?" See the notes on that passage. Within that limited space, Satan knows that he must do all that he ever can do to destroy souls, and to spread woe through the earth, and hence, it is not unnatural that he should be represented as excited to deeper wrath, and as rousing all his energy to destroy the church.
And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child.
And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth - That is, when Satan saw that he was doomed to discomfiture and overthrow, as if he had been cast out of heaven; when he saw that his efforts must be confined to the earth, and that only for a limited time, he "persecuted the woman," and was more violently enraged against the church on earth.
He persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child - See the notes on Revelation 12:5. The child is represented as safe; that is, the ultimate progress and extension of the church was certain. But Satan was permitted still to wage a warfare against the church - represented here by his wrath against the woman, and by her being constrained to flee into the wilderness. It is unnecessary to say that, after the pagan persecutions ceased, and Christianity was firmly established in the empire; after Satan saw that all hope of destroying the church in that manner was at an end, his enmity was vented in another form - in the rise of the papacy, and in the persecutions under that an opposition to spiritual religion no less determined and deadly than what had been waged by paganism.
And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.
And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle - The most powerful of birds, and among the most rapid in flight. See the notes on Revelation 4:7. The meaning here is, that the woman is represented as prepared for a rapid flight; so prepared as to be able to outstrip her pursuer, and to reach a place of safety. Divested of the figure, the sense is, that the church, when exposed to this form of persecution, would be protected as if miraculously supplied with wings.
That she might fly into the wilderness - There is here a more full description of what is briefly stated in Revelation 12:6. A wilderness or desert is often represented as a place of safety from pursuers. Thus David 1 Samuel 23:14-15 is represented as fleeing into the wilderness from the persecutions of Saul. So Elijah 1 Kings 19:4 fled into the wilderness from the persecutions of Jezebel. The simple idea here is, that the church, in the opposition which would come upon it, would find a refuge.
Into her place - A place appointed for her; that is, a place where she could be safe.
Where she is nourished - The word rendered here "nourished" is the same - τρέφω trephō - which occurs in Revelation 12:6, and which is there rendered "feed." It means to feed, nurse, or nourish, as the young of animals Matthew 6:26; Matthew 25:37; Luke 12:24; Acts 12:20; that is, to sustain by proper food. The meaning here is, that the church would be kept alive. It is not indeed mentioned by whom this would be done, but it is evidently implied that it would be by God. During this long period in which the church would be in obscurity, it would not be suffered to become extinct. Compare 1 Kings 17:3-6.
For a time, and times, and half a time - A year, two years, and half a year; that is, forty-two months (see the notes on Revelation 11:2); or, reckoning the month at thirty days, twelve hundred and sixty days; and regarding these as prophetic days, in which a day stands for a year, twelve hundred and sixty years. For a full discussion of the meaning of this language, see the notes on Daniel 7:25; and Editor's Pref. For the evidence, also, that the time thus specified refers to the papacy, and to the period of its continuance, see the notes on that place. The full consideration given to the subject there renders it unnecessary to discuss it here. For it is manifest that there is an allusion here to the passage in Daniel; that the twelve hundred and sixty days refer to the same thing; and that the true explanation must be made in the same way. The main difficulty, as is remarked on the notes on that passage, is in determining the time when the papacy properly commenced.
If that could be ascertained with certainty, there would be no difficulty in determining when it would come to an end. But though there is considerable uncertainty as to the exact time when it arose, and though different opinions have been entertained on that point, yet it is true that all the periods assigned for the rise of that power lead to the conclusion that the time of its downfall cannot be remote. The meaning in the passage before us is, that during all the time of the continuance of that formidable, persecuting power, the true church would not in fact become extinct. It would be obscure and comparatively unknown, but it would still live. The fulfillment of this is found in the fact, that during all the time here referred to, there has been a true church on the earth. Pure, spiritual religion - the religion of the New Testament - has never been wholly extinct. In the history of the Waldenses, and Albigenses, the Bohemian brethren, and kindred people; in deserts and places of obscurity; among individuals and among small and persecuted sects; here and there in the cases of individuals in monasteries, the true religion has been kept up in the world, as in the days of Elijah God reserved seven thousand men who had not bowed the knee to Baal: and it is possible now for us, with a good degree of certainty, to show, even during the darkest ages, and when Rome seemed to have entirely the ascendency, where the true church was. To find out this, was the great design of the Ecclesiastical History of Milner; it has been done, also, with great learning and skill, by Neander.
From the face of the serpent - The dragon - or Satan represented by the dragon. See the notes at Revelation 12:3. The reference here is to the opposition which Satan makes to the true church under the persecutions and corruptions of the papacy.
And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.
And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood - This is special and uncommon imagery, and it is not necessary to suppose that anything like this literally occurs in nature. Some serpents are indeed said to eject from their mouths poisonous bile when they are enraged, in order to annoy their pursuers; and some sea monsters, it is known, spout forth large quantities of water; but the representation here does not seem to be taken from either of those cases. It is the mere product of the imagination, but the sense is clear. The woman is represented as having wings, and as being able thus to escape from the serpent. But, as an expression of his wrath, and as if with the hope of destroying her in her flight by a deluge of water, he is represented as pouring a flood from his mouth, that he might, if possible, sweep her away. The figure here would well represent the continued malice of the papal body against the true church, in those dark ages when it was sunk in obscurity, and, as it were, driven out into the desert. That malice never slumbered, but was continually manifesting itself in some new form, as if it were the purpose of papal Rome to sweep it entirely away.
That he might cause her to be carried away of the flood - Might cause the church wholly to be destroyed. The truth taught is, that Satan leaves no effort untried to destroy the church.
And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.
And the earth helped the woman - The earth seemed to sympathize with the woman in her persecutions, and to interpose to save her. The meaning is, that a state of things would exist in regard to the church thus driven into obscurity, which would be well represented by what is here said to occur. It was cut off from human aid. It was still in danger; still persecuted. In this state it was nourished from some unseen source. It was enabled to avoid the direct attacks of the enemy, and when he attacked it in a new form, a new mode of intervention in its behalf was granted, as if the earth should open and swallow up a flood of water. We are not, therefore, to look for any literal fulfillment of this, as if the earth interposed in some marvelous way to aid the church. The sense is, that, in that state of obscurity and solitude, the divine interposition was manifested, in an unexpected manner, as if, when an impetuous stream was rolling along that threatened to sweep everything away, a chasm should suddenly open in the earth and absorb it. During the dark ages many such interventions occurred, saving the church from utter destruction. Overflowing waters are often in the Scriptures an emblem of mighty enemies. Psalm 124:2-5, "if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us; then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us: then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul: then the proud waters had gone over our soul." Psalm 18:16, "he sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters." Jeremiah 47:2, "behold, waters rise up out of the north, and shall be an overflowing flood, and shall overflow the land," etc. Compare Jeremiah 46:7-8, and notes on Isaiah 8:7-8.
And the earth opened her mouth - A chasm was made sufficient to absorb the waters. That is, John saw that the church was safe from this attack, and that, in order to preserve it, there was an interposition as marked and wonderful as if the earth should suddenly open and swallow up a mighty flood.
And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
And the dragon was wroth with the woman - This wrath had been vented by his persecuting her Revelation 12:13; by his pursuing her; and by his pouring out the flood of water to sweep her away Revelation 12:15; and the same wrath was now vented against her children. As he could not reach and destroy the woman herself, he turned his indignation against all who were allied to her. Stripped of the imagery, the meaning is, that as he could not destroy the church as such, he vented his malice against all who were the friends of the church, and endeavored to destroy them. "The church, as such, he could not destroy; therefore he turned his wrath against individual Christians, to bring as many of them as possible to death" (DeWette).
And went to make war with the remnant of her seed - No mention is made before of his persecuting the children of the woman, except his opposition to the "man child" which she bore, Revelation 12:1-4. The "woman" represents the church, and the phrase "the remnant of her seed" must refer to her scattered children, that is, to the scattered members of the church, wherever they could be found. The reference here is to persecutions against individuals, rather than a general persecution against the church itself, and all that is here said would find an ample fulfillment in the vexations and troubles of individuals in the Roman communion in the dark ages, when they evinced the spirit of pure evangelical piety; in the cruelties practiced in the Inquisition on individual Christians under the plea that they were heretics; and in the persecutions of such men as Wycliffe, John Huss, and Jerome of Prague. This warfare against individual Christians was continued long in the papal church, and tens of thousands of true friends of the Saviour suffered every form of cruelty and wrong as the result.
Which keep the commandments of God - Who were true Christians. This phrase characterizes correctly those who, in the dark ages, were the friends of God, in the midst of abounding corruption.
And have the testimony of Jesus Christ - That is, they bore a faithful testimony to his truth, or were real martyrs. See Revelation 2:13.
The scene, then, in this chapter is this: John saw a most beautiful woman, suitably adorned, representing the church as about to he enlarged, and to become triumphant in the earth. Then he saw a great red monster, representing Satan, about to destroy the church: the pagan power, infuriated, and putting forth its utmost energy for its destruction. He then saw the child caught up into heaven, denoting that the church would be ultimately safe, and would reign over all the world. Another vision appears, It is that of a contest between Michael, the protecting angel of the people of God, and the great foe, in which victory declares in favor of the former, and Satan suffers a discomfiture, as if he were cast from heaven to earth. Still, however, he is permitted for a time to carry on a warfare against the church, though certain that he would be ultimately defeated. He puts forth his power, and manifests his hostility, in another form - that of the papacy - and commences a new opposition against the spiritual church of Christ. The church is, however, safe from that attempt to destroy it, for the woman is represented as fleeing to the wilderness beyond the power of the enemy, and is there kept alive. Still filled with rage, though incapable of destroying the true church itself, he turns his wrath, under the form of papal persecutions, against individual Christians, and endeavors to cut them off in detail.
This is the general representation in this chapter, and on the supposition that it was designed to represent the various forms of opposition which Satan would make to the church of Christ, under paganism and the papacy, it must be admitted, I think, that no more expressive or appropriate symbols could have been chosen. This fact should be allowed to have due influence in confirming the interpretation suggested above; and if it be admitted to be a correct interpretation, it is conclusive evidence of the inspiration of the book. Further details of this opposition of Satan to the church under the papal form of persecution are made in the subsequent chapters.