In this series, we have been discussing the dating of John’s vision on Patmos based on the scriptural evidence. Although Irenæaus seems to place the vision at the end of the first century, other early writers of his era place it before Paul’s epistles and even as early as emperor Claudius, as we discussed in Part 1. While the external testimony is inconsistent and contradictory, we believe the date of the vision can be found based on the internal testimony, especially in light of the Danielic nature of the angelic narrator’s language in Revelation 17:10.
Last week we addressed what we consider to be a major weakness in one commonly held historicist interpretation of the “seven kings” of Revelation 17:10. In what has been called the “generally received Protestant interpretation” the “seven kings” are taken to refer to seven “forms of government” (E. B. Elliott, Horæ Apocalypticæ, vol iii, 96, 98), an interpretation that comes down to us with no Danielic precedent. Daniel’s narrators had informed him of successions of kings and successions of empires, but never of a succession of forms of government. When Daniel, like John, was informed of his relative position in the eschatological timeline, it was in terms of a succession of kings (Daniel 11:1-3), not in terms of a succession of “forms of government.” We see no compelling reason why Revelation 17:10 should be interpreted any differently. John’s current place in the eschatological timeline was related to him in terms of a succession of actual rulers, just as Daniel’s had been.
This week we will highlight a second, but less obvious, way in which the “generally received Protestant interpretation” departs from authentically Danielic eschatology. The second problem with the traditional historicist interpretation is in the actual period of the dominion of the Fourth Beast. The succession of empires is described in terms of their dominion over the earth, and as each successive empire rises and falls, its period of relevance regarding earthly dominion, comes and goes with it. The “generally received Protestant interpretation” of Revelation 17:10 represents a significant—and unwarranted—departure from that pattern.
Daniel 2, 7, 8 and 11 speak of a succession of world empires, or superpowers. The Lord “hath made [Nebuchadnezzar] ruler over them all” (Daniel 2:38). The succeeding empires “shall bear rule over all the earth” (Daniel 2:39) The fourth “breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things” (Daniel 2:40) In Daniel 7:23, the fourth kingdom “shall devour the whole earth.” In Daniel 8, the Ram is so powerful that “no beasts might stand before him” (Daniel 8:4), and then the He-goat was so powerful that “there was none that could deliver the ram out of his hand” (Daniel 8:7). In Daniel 11, the Greek king “shall rule with great dominion” (Daniel 11:3). These are world superpowers being described, and Rome does not become an empire or a world superpower until after Babylon, Media, Persia and Greece have all run their course as empires.
In one sense, the “scarlet coloured beast” represents the Roman superpower that was currently dominant at the time of the vision, for one of the beast’s kings “is now” reigning (Revelation 17:10), and the woman on the beast “is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 17:18). It is a vision of a contemporary Roman superpower ruled from the city of Rome. In another sense, its form also reflects a Danielic figuration related to the dominance of the preceding empires of the Lion, the Bear and the Leopard, for its total number of heads and horns is equivalent to the number of heads and horns of Daniel 7, and in that sense, it is “the beast that was” (Revelation 17:8). In yet another sense, it also prefigures a future manifestation of antichrist when the ten kings of Revelation 17:12 would finally have their kingdoms and the beast would finally manifest in the form of the preceding empires of the Lion, the Bear and the Leopard, as depicted in Revelation 13:1. But those kings “have received no kingdom as yet” (Revelation 17:12), and in that sense it was still yet to be (Revelation 17:8).
It is that future manifestation that occupies the bulk of the narrative in Revelation 17, for in his explanation, the angel invests most of his words on it—the whole world wondering after the beast (17:8), the ten kings aligning with the beast (17:12-13), and giving their kingdom to it (17:17) and turning against the woman (17:16) making war with the beast against the Lamb (17:14).
We may link the future manifestation of the beast of Revelation 17 to the sea beast of Revelation 13 by the fact that all the world—they “whose names are not written in the book of life”—is said to wonder after both (Revelation 17:8, 13:3,8). Clearly these two are references to one antichrist, after whom the whole world shall wonder. We may also link the sea beast of Revelation 13 to the Little Horn of Daniel 7 by the fact that both are given mouths speaking great things, and power to wage war against the saints (Revelation 13:5,7; Daniel 7:8:21). Clearly these two are references to one antichrist which shall speak arrogantly and wear out the saints, and clearly the Danielic chronology was about to undergo a major eschatological transition that would set the stage for his rise.
We emphasize the beast’s former dominance manifested through the preceding empires (it “was”), its current dominance manifested in the Roman empire (it “is”), and its future dominance in relation to the sea beast of Revelation 13:1-2 and the Little Horn of Daniel 7 (it “shall ascend”), in order to highlight its overall Danielicity. Daniel consistently described the beasts and horns by their periods of relevance and dominance, and John is clearly doing the same thing. To the degree that the scarlet beast “was,” it “was” in the form of the dominion of the preceding empires or Babylon, Medo-Persia and Greece, as we noted in Part 2. To the degree that the scarlet beast “is,” it “is” in the form of the currently reigning Roman empire. To the degree that the scarlet beast “shall ascend,” it “shall ascend” in the form of the composite beast of Revelation 13 in the period of the dominion of the ten horns.
In the Danielic chronology, there is the period of Babylon, the period of Medo-Persia, the period of Greece, the period of Rome in its three phases—Legs, Feet, Toes—and then the period of Antichrist. Under no circumstances does Daniel deal with any individual beast’s distant, ancient genesis prior to its period of relevance or dominance. In fact Daniel completely ignores the ancient origins of each individual empire prior to its significance on the world stage. But what Elliott has called the “generally received Protestant interpretation” does with the Fourth Empire something that Daniel never did. It requires that we establish a chronology based on the distant, ancient origins of the Roman empire before it was an empire. As we shall see, this is an approach that is completely foreign to Danielic eschatology.
The dissonance that the “generally received Protestant interpretation” introduces to Danielic eschatology may be seen by comparing it to Daniel’s own handling of each empire. Nebuchadnezzar was himself the son of Nabopolassar who ruled Babylonia from 626-605 B.C.. Yet Daniel makes no mention of Nabopolassar, and instead makes Nebuchadnezzar Babylon’s first king, the head of gold (Daniel 2:38) with his rise to power in 605 B.C.. The Medes came to power between 616 and 605 B.C. while Babylon was dominant, and yet Daniel makes no case for their relevance prior to Babylon’s fall, and makes Darius the Mede their first king (Daniel 5:28, 31). There were Persian kings before Cyrus the Great, who was himself the grandson of King Cyrus I of the Achaemenid dynasty dating as far back as 652 B.C.. But as Gabriel explained, the Persians “came up last” (Daniel 8:3), and Cyrus the Great himself has no relevance until 538 B.C. when he conquered the Medes (Isaiah 44:28-45:1). As far as Daniel is concerned, Cyrus the Great was the first king of Persia. Alexander the Great was actually Alexander III, the son of Philip II of Macedon, who was himself part of a long line of Greek kings dating back to 496 B.C., but Gabriel refers to Alexander as the “first king” of Grecia (Daniel 8:21).
As Daniel notes, Alexander’s empire was then divided four ways (Daniel 7:6; 8:8, 22; 11:4) and as we showed in The Single Frame Hypothesis, the period of relevance of the four kingdoms that came up after Alexander—North, South, East and West—ends in 48 B.C. with the death of Pompey. Pompey was a Roman general whose only significance in Daniel 11 is that the Roman Republic—not yet an empire—had occupied the Northern territory of Alexander’s divided empire, becoming the de facto “king of the north” from an Alexandrian perspective. To the end of Daniel 11, the title retains its post-Alexandrian but nonetheless Hellenic significance in regard to the four-way division of Alexander’s empire. Then, immediately before Pompey’s demise, Julius Cæasar crossed the Rubicon, effectively putting an end to the Republic and then took on monarchical Roman powers when he was declared Dictator in Perpetuity four years later. He marks the beginning of the “seven kings” of Revelation 17:10, making him the “first king” of the Fourth Empire.
We review the periods of relevance and dominance of the four succeeding empires and their first kings because their relevance and dominance is always linked to their succession from the declining empire before them, and not to their distant ancient origins. Daniel 2 takes place during the period of Babylonian dominion, and the “head of gold” refers to its first king in a Danielic context, which is Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:38), even though there was another Babylonian king before him. Then the Medes rise and take over the kingdom, making Darius the first king of the Medes in a Danielic context (Daniel 5:31), even though there were other Median kings before him. Then the Persians conquer the Medes, and Cyrus is the first king of Persia in a Danielic context even though there were other Persian kings before him. Then Alexander conquers the Persians, making Alexander “the first king” of Greece in a Danielic context (Daniel 8:21), even though there were many other Greek kings before him. Alexander’s empire is then divided four ways and the complete history of the third empire—its rise and its fall—plays out for us in Daniel 11. The chapter ends with the death of the last “king of the north” in an Alexandrian frame of reference (Daniel 11:4, 45), and then we are immediately introduced to the events particular to the rise of the Fourth Empire:
“And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.” (Daniel 12:1)
The period of the Greeks was finally relegated to the history books, and Rome’s time had come.
Notably, and importantly, Rome’s relevance as the dominant world superpower only manifests in the Scriptures with the complete passing of Greek power and the rise of a Roman imperial monarchy. It is a continuous unfolding of history, starting with Nebuchadnezzar, and reflects a continuity of passing empires. Babylon, then the Medes, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the four-way division of the Greeks, then the Roman. Of the distant, ancient origins of each individual empire, Daniel has nothing at all to say.
Yet the “generally received Protestant interpretation” as described by Elliott requires that we trace the relevance of the Roman empire to its origins more than a century prior to the birth of king Nebuchadnezzar, a century and a half before the starting point of Danielic eschatology, and a full seven hundred years before the rise of the Roman imperial monarchy of Daniel’s visions. The interpretation has the first six heads of Revelation 17:10 referring to the first six forms of government: Kings, Consuls, Dictators, Decemvirs, Military Tribunes and then Emperors, yet a simple inspection of the timeline shows the error of his approach.
Danielic eschatology spans a period that begins with Nebuchadnezzar’s rise in 605 B.C., no earlier. But the period of the Kings of Rome dates to the reign of Romulus who allegedly founded the city in 753 B.C., about 150 years before Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. The “scarlet coloured beast” of Revelation 17 is clearly Roman (Revelation 17:9, 18) and its current dominion is clearly significant within its Danielic time span. But the idea of extending Roman relevance and dominion to a period a century and a half before any other reign of any kingdom in Daniel 2, 7, 8, 9 and 11, seven centuries before its days as a global power, is a concept that is plainly foreign to Danielic eschatology. It makes no sense at all.
What does make sense is that when the angelic narrator described Daniel’s current chronological position in the eschatological timeline, he did so using a description of a succession of kings that was immediately relevant to Daniel:
“Also I in the first year of Darius the Mede, even I, stood to confirm and to strengthen him. And now will I shew thee the truth. Behold, there shall stand up yet three kings in Persia; and the fourth shall be far richer than they all: and by his strength through his riches he shall stir up all against the realm of Grecia. And a mighty king shall stand up, that shall rule with great dominion, and do according to his will.” (Daniel 11:1-3)
Thus, when John’s narrator does the same thing, we are hardly left wondering what it must mean. The angelic narrator was describing John’s current chronological position in the eschatological timeline, and he did so using a description of a succession of kings that was immediately relevant to John:
“And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” (Revelation 17:10)
Therefore, as much as we respect and admire our historicist brethren and forebears—indeed, this writer would not now be a historicist without their labors—we nonetheless do not find the “generally received Protestant interpretation” of Revelation 17:10 to be compelling. Throughout Danielic eschatology, Daniel and his narrators describe for us kings and empires in succession, each empire a succession of kings, each one relevant in its own period of world dominion as it overtakes the preceding empire and then yields to the succeeding empire.
When Daniel clearly heralds the terminus a quo of each successive superpower by the rise of the “first king” in that kingdom’s period of world dominion, it hardly makes sense to shift to a new approach in Revelation by identifying the “first king” of the Roman empire with its first form of government back in the days when Rome was but a tiny, obscure little village on Palatine Hill, a full century and a half before the “head of gold” had manifested, and a full seven centuries before the Fourth Empire “breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things” (Daniel 2:40) and “shall devour the whole earth” (Daniel 7:23). Neither Daniel nor his narrators handled any other empire that way, and there is no Scriptural basis for making the Roman empire the exception.
When Revelation 17:10 is understood the same way Daniel 11:1-3 is—as a succession of actual kings of immediate relevance to the person recording the vision—establishing each visionary’s place in the chronology, a flow of history is allowed to emerge in piecewise continuity. That flow manifests in a continuity of succession not only from Lion, to Bear, to Leopard to Fourth Beast, and not only from Ram to He-Goat, and not only from Gold, to Silver, to Brass, to Iron, to Iron & Clay, but also from Legs to Feet to Toes.
The first king of Babylon was Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:38). The first king of the Medes was Darius (Daniel 5:28). The first king of the Persians was Cyrus who came up after the Medes (Daniel 8:3). The first king of the Greeks was Alexander (Daniel 8:7, 11:3). His kingdom was divided four ways, and the last one standing was the “king of the north” as described in Daniel 11:40-45. When “he shall come to his end,” it is the beginning of the “fourth kingdom [which] … subdueth all things” (Daniel 2:40) and “devour the whole earth” (Daniel 7:23), making Julius Cæsar the “first king” of the Romans. That is where we mark the beginning of the Fourth Empire, the Legs of Iron.
The Fourth Empire is then segmented into three periods—Legs, Feet and Toes—and Cæsar was the beginning of the Legs. By John’s day, five kings of the Iron Legs period had come and gone, Nero was now reigning, and only one more would briefly follow before the transition to the Feet of Iron & Clay, as we noted in Part 3. That period of Iron & Clay was to be fraught with eschatological significance, for during the Feet, the kingdom of heaven would be transferred to the saints, the Stone would strike the Fourth Empire, breaking it into the fragments from which the Antichrist would rise. That critical flow from Legs to Feet to Toes is lost when the “generally received Protestant interpretation” takes the “seven kings” to refer to seven “forms of government,” and places the beginning of the Roman Empire seven centuries prior to its rise in Danielic eschatology.
We will continue on this theme next week in summary fashion, and conclude the series.