Revelation 13 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Revelation 13
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This chapter describes the rise of two foes of Christ and His people. They are described as “wild beasts” in opposition to Him who is the Lamb. They are distinct from the dragon; yet they are inspired, as it were, by him. He gives them power (Revelation 13:4); his voice speaks through them (Revelation 13:11). They are forces and powers utilised by him in hostility to the cause of righteousness and truth. On the whole of this section the parallel vision in Daniel 7 ought to be read.

And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.
(1) And I . . .—Better, And he (not “I stood,” as in English version, but he, i.e., the dragon) stood upon the sand of the sea. Some make this sentence a separate verse, and insert it as the closing verse of Revelation 12. It is true that the sentence has a connection with that chapter, but it is also closely linked with what follows. The way in which the dragon carries out his plan of war is described. Like Milton’s “superior fiend,” he stands upon the shore and summons his legions (Par. Lost, Book I.) to another form of war. Two monsters, one distinguished by more brutal, the other by more subtle power, rise at his bidding.

And saw . . .—Translate, And I saw a wild beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and upon his horns ten diadems, and upon his heads names of blasphemy.—The wild beast rises out of the sea. In the vision of Daniel (Revelation 7) the beasts rose out of the sea upon which the four winds strove. The sea represents the great, restless mass of human kind; or, as it is expressed in Revelation 17:15, “peoples and multitudes.” St. James represented an undecided man as a wave driven by the wind (James 1:6). The individuals, like larger and smaller waves, make up this great ocean-like mass of men, swayed by impulse or passion. Out of the sea rises a wild beast. The word is not the same as that used in Revelation 4:7 (see Note there), but is a word which implies the predominance of the beast nature. Whatever power rises is one which rules not by love or right, but by fear and wilfulness. It is the great force of the world-power, which in every age has been antagonistic to the power of right. The wild beast is always the figure of the kingdoms of this world—i.e., the kingdoms which are founded on passion or selfishness. They are seven in number, as the beast had seven heads. We read afterwards of seven mountains. These world-powers are spoken of as mountains for their strength and stability; as heads of the wild beast because, though separate, they are inspired by the dragon spirit, the spirit of utter enmity to the rule of the Righteous King. The seven kingdoms, or heads of the wild beast, are more distinctly explained in Revelation 17:10. There we read that five are fallen, one was in possession of power, and the seventh had not yet arisen. The key is thus placed in our hands. The sixth head is imperial Rome, the successor of those great world-powers which were, one and all, founded in unrighteousness—i.e., in violation of the law of brotherly kindness and faith. The heads carry the names of blasphemy. The spirit of arrogant self-sufficiency characterised all the world-powers. Illustrations would be too numerous for our space. It is enough to refer to the spirit in Babylon: “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” The words were Nebuchadnezzar’s (Daniel 4:30). He became a beast in uttering them; but the spirit of them went through all the world-powers, from the days of Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24) and Babel (Genesis 11:4) to the days when Roman poets prostituted their pens in abject flattery of emperors, and a degraded people welcomed them as gods, and put those to death who refused to offer frankincense and wine to the images of those who wore the purple.

Ten horns.—The beast has, besides seven heads, ten horns, which are explained further on (Revelation 17:12) as “the kings which have received no kingdom as yet,” but which, when they rise, will draw their strength from the dragon and be members of the wild beast.

And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.
(2) And the beast . . .—The wild beast combined the features of three wild animals: the leopard, the bear, the lion. In Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:4) the kingdoms were described: the first, like a lion; the second, like a bear; the third, like a leopard or panther. Here all these features are combined, because the wild beast is a representative of all forms of world-power, which have been swift to shed blood: like a leopard leaping on the prey, tenacious and relentless as a bear, and all devouring (their throat is an open sepulchre) as a lion. The reader will remember the wild beasts which in vision hindered Dante when he sought to ascend the “pleasant mount”—the “cause and source of all delight.” The leopard, the lion, the wolf were symbols of luxuriousness, cruel ambition, and hungry and heartless avarice, which oppose men and nations when they seek the Holy Hill, where the light of God ever rests. (Comp. Inferno, i. 10-74)

And the dragon.—Read, And the dragon gave him his power and his throne (not his “seat,” as in the English version; it is the royal seat, the throne, which is meant). (See Notes on Revelation 11:16 and Revelation 4:4.)

And great authority.—It is through this succession of world-powers that the dragon carries on his war. The wild beast becomes the vicegerent, so to speak, of the prince of this world.

And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.
(3) And I saw . . .—Translate, And (I saw) one from among his heads as if having been slain [the expression is the same as that applied to the Lamb in Revelation 5:6 : the wound marks are there when the vision rises] unto death; and the stroke of his death was healed. When the wild beast rose from the sea, the seer saw the deadly wound on the head: the wound was really unto death; the beast which had waged war against the true kingdom of righteousness and faith has received his death-blow. This is the historical point from which the vision starts. This being so, the death-blow is that which has just been dealt: the seed of the woman has bruised the serpent’s head. The blow which casts down the dragon inflicts a deadly wound upon the wild beast, which is his agent. When Christ overthrew the wicked one He gave the death-blow to the world-power—to all systems founded on passion, or self-sufficiency, or inhumanity. But the death-blow is apparently healed. What is this but telling the Church of Christ that the fruits of Christ’s victory will not be seen without delay? The world-power is smitten unto death; but the actual death does not follow immediately. The power of evil, contrary to all expectation, rises with new vigour. This revived power showed itself, with more or less force, in the way in which the spirit of the wild beast broke forth when Christianity seemed to have put fetters on the Roman empire.

(3, 4) And all the world wondered . . .—Literally, And the whole earth wondered after the wild beast, and worshipped the dragon, because he gave the authority and worshipped the wild beast, saying, Who is like unto the wild beast? and who is able to war with him? The healing of the death-blow causes wonder to all. Their wonder leads to worship. The spirit of the wild beast is adored wherever worldliness prevails. There is nothing so successful as success, and the homage of men is more often paid to power than to principle. “Who is like unto the beast?” The words are a parody, and a blasphemous parody, on the ascription of praise to God which the name Michael imported. (See Revelation 12:7; comp. Psalms 112, Micah 7:18.) “Who is like unto God?” is the legend of the saints: the opposing cry is, “Who is like unto the beast?”

“Can you not hear the words coming across the centuries from the lips of two Roman youths talking with each other, as they lounge together in the Forum?” (Maurice.) Can we not hear the echo of the words in the Champs Elysées, in Piccadilly, in the Broadway, or Unter Den Linden, from the lips of young men who have taken fashion, rank, wealth, world-power in any shape, as their god?

And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?
And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.
(5) And there was given . . .—In these verses the words and the works of the wild beast are described. The 5th verse tells us that the liberty to speak and work was given to him. There is consolation in the words: he has no power beyond what is given; behind his reckless and apparently irresistible power there stands the veiled but real power of God. “Thou couldest have no power” (the saints may take up their Lord’s words) “against me, except it were given thee from above.” He speaks great things, and blasphemy. And there was given him authority to act (literally, to do) forty-two months. Again the familiar period, the limited time of the world-power.

And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven.
(6) And he opened his mouth . . .—Translate, And he opened his mouth unto blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name, and His tabernacle, and them that tabernacle in the heaven. Much of the beauty of the thought is lost by the translation “them that dwell;” the word is tabernacle. The saints, to whom the name of the Lord is a strong tower, and who have a tabernacle of witness in this wilderness world, can yet tabernacle their spirits where their treasure is, in the heaven, according to that word:” our citizenship is even now in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Against these the world-power blasphemes: who has not taken the Lord for his strength, God is not his might; his might is his god. (Comp. Habakkuk 1:11 : “He passes over and is guilty, he whose might is his god.”)

And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.
(7) And it was given . . .—Better, He makes war with the saints, and conquers them. This, too, is said to be “given him.” The conquest is not a conquest of their fidelity; it is rather that the beast so far succeeds that they must suffer or submit. The saints seem to be single handed; for there was given him authority over every tribe, and people, and tongues, and nations. Nor does his success end here; the next verse shows us how completely earth is at his feet.

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
(8) And all that dwell . . .—Better, And all they that dwell on the earth shall worship him (every one) whose name has not been written in the book of life of the Lamb that has been slain from the foundation of the world. This is the climax of his triumph: he, or it, is worshipped; but the saints, though conquered, conquer; they do not worship after the fashion of the deluded or self-seeking. A stronger tie binds them to a better allegiance; their names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life. There is some doubt about the connection of the words “from the foundation of the world.” Some connect them with the word “written”: this would express that the names were written “from the foundation of the world” in the book. Others connect them with the word “slain”: this expresses that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world. For the former view, the similar passage in Revelation 17:8 is cited; but, on the other hand, the phrase “from the foundation of the world” is connected in other parts of the Bible with certain aspects of the work of Christ (1 Peter 1:19-20, and John 17:24), and it seems more natural to take the words in their simple order. Whatever view we take, the verse proclaims that the security of God’s saints is based on the eternal love of God. “An eternal deliverer is the only refuge from this great world-tyranny; “the strength of the tempted is in Him who is the same in love and righteousness through all the ages.

If any man have an ear, let him hear.
(9) This verse—an echo of his Master’s words from the lips of the beloved disciple—calls marked attention to the warning words of the next verse.

He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.
(10) This verse may read: If any one (is) for captivity, into captivity he goeth; if any one to be hilled by the sword, he should by the sword be killed. If we read the verse thus, it is generally understood to be a caution to the suffering saints that there is nothing for them but to endure, just as Jeremiah told his countrymen that those who were for death must go out to meet it, and those who were for sword or captivity must face them (Jeremiah 15:2). But is not this a warning to them that the way of the Church’s victory lay through suffering captivity and meeting sword, and that the temptation to take the sword or seize the weapons of their foes would be fatal to their true success? The spirit of the words reminds them that their weapons are the weapons of faith and patience, of truth and righteousness; and they must accept the tribulation, as their Lord did His cross, because thus it must be. At the same time, their very doing so is a witness to their foes that “all those who take the sword will perish with the sword;” and that the sword, from which the saints do not shrink, will assuredly turn against those who use it. Here (i.e., in the enduring of these persecutions, and amid so many temptations, not seizing easy, world-like methods of saving themselves) is the endurance and faith of the saints.

And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.

For the understanding of this portion of the vision we must notice the contrasts and resemblances between this and the former wild beast. They are both wild beasts: they both have horns: they both have a dragon-like inspiration (Revelation 13:11): they both tyrannise over men; but, on the other hand, the second beast is less monstrous in appearance: we read only of two horns, and we hear nothing of seven heads. He somewhat resembles a lamb; he rises from the earth, and not from the sea; his power lies in deception (Revelation 13:13-14) as well as violence; e seems to possess more supernatural power: yet the whole of his work is directed to magnifying the first beast (Revelation 13:12). Do not these features lead to the conclusion that the principles which the second wild beast supports are the same as those on which the former wild beast acted, but that he supports them with more subtlety, intelligence, and culture? But for all the deception he employs, his work, when stripped of its specious drapery and seen in its naked ugliness, is to promote the honour of the first wild beast. Because of this seductiveness, and of his efforts to support his mission with higher sanctions (Revelation 13:13), he is called in later chapters (Revelation 16:13; Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:10) the False Prophet; the force and appropriateness of this designation becomes more apparent when we notice that the features which are assumed bear a deceptive resemblance to those of a lamb. The advancing intelligence of the world, its increase in knowledge and wisdom, the wider diffusion of culture and thought, produce a change in the general fashion of life, but the spirit which animates. society is unchanged. The second wild beast is that change which is a change of mode, but not of spirit—a change of manners, but not of heart; there is more refinement, more civilisation, more mind, but it is still the world-power which is worshipped; it is the self-seeking adoration of pleasures, honours, occupations, influences which spring from earth and end in earth—the pursuit of powers which are worldly. Some see in this second wild beast the Pagan priesthood aiding the imperial power, the embodiment of the first wild beast; others-see in it the Papal sacerdotal power, the heir of Pagan rites; others, again, would combine the two, and view this second wild beast as the sacerdotal persecuting power, Pagan and Christian. I believe that, though there is truth in these views, they are too narrow. It is true that priesthoods—Pagan and Christian—have often devoted their influence to the upholding of the great world-power; it is true that men called to be Christian teachers forgot their function, and used their knowledge and power to bolster up the power of the beast and to make men worship the world, as though there were nothing higher for men to worship than this world could afford; it is true that they used, in later days, their powers to aggrandize the Church rather than to reform the world and regenerate men: in so far as they did this they acted like the second wild beast; but the stretch of the vision embraces more than these. All who use their knowledge, their culture, their wisdom, to teach men that there is nothing worthy of worship save what they can see, and touch, and taste, are acting the part of the second wild beast; and be they apostles of science, or apostles of culture, or apostles of logical immorality, or apostles of what is called materialism, if their teaching leads men to limit their worship to the visible and the tangible, they are making men worship the beast who is the adversary of the servants of the Lamb.

(11) And I beheld . . . Better, And I saw another wild beast rising out of the earth. Both wild beasts rise from beneath. The sea, out of which the first rises, represents the tumultuous impulses and passions of mankind; the earth, the more fixed element of human, thought and wisdom, or society consolidated and disciplined by intelligence and culture: the wisdom, however, which guides this wild beast is not divine wisdom, but that wisdom which a sacred writer described as earthly, sensual, devilish (James 3:17).

He had two horns like (those of) a lamb.—There is an appearance of gentleness about him, but he spake as a dragon; the voice betrayeth him. He that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth. The spirit of the adversary is in him (John 3:31; John 8:44).

And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.
(12) And he exerciseth . . .—Better, And he works, or exercises (literally, does), all the authority (or, power) of the first wild beast in his presence. It will be seen by this that we must not look upon the second wild beast as a successor, but rather as a supporter, of the first. The intellectual force of an earthly wisdom is practically subservient to the spirit of unmitigated worldliness.

(12, 13) And causeth the earth . . .—Literally, and he makes the earth and them that dwell in it that they shall worship the first wild beast, the stroke of whose death was healed; and he does signs great, so that he even makes fire to descend out of the heaven to the earth in the sight of men. This descent of fire is the counterpart of the work of the two witnesses (Revelation 11:5), and of Elijah in Old Testament days. It is one of the features of that deceivableness of unrighteousness which misleads man. There is a holy fire which inspires the lips and hearts of the holy; there is an unhallowed fire, a fire of mere power, which the worldly spirit is tempted to worship.

And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men,
And deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast; saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live.
(14) And deceiveth them . . .—Better, And he leads astray those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which were given him to do in the presence of the wild beast; saying to those who dwell on the earth, to make an image to the wild beast that has the stroke of the sword and lived. He leads astray: this is the key to his success, he deifies the spirit of worldliness; but he does it by deception and subtlety: there is an appearance of wonderful power: he can work lying wonders. When men lose the sense of duty,—the will to ask, “Is it right?”—they become an easy prey to some specious deception. This is the reason that, both in the old and new dispensations, a caution against “immoral marvels” is entered (see Deuteronomy 13:1-3; Matthew 24:24; and 2 Thessalonians 2:9); mere greatness, either of achievement or of miracle, is no guarantee of a good cause. The motto “Might is right is the motto of worldliness; “Right is might” is the motto of faith, and those who hold it cannot worship the beast, even though the stroke of his death-wound is healed. Men have appealed to lying miracles on behalf of a death-wounded creed: the cleverness of self-interested partisanship is seldom barren of imposing expedients.

And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed.
(15) And he had power . . .—Better, And it was given to him to give breath to the image of the wild beast, that the image of the wild beast should both speak, and cause that as many as do not worship the image of the wild beast shall be slain. The image to the wild beast is an image also of the wild beast: and the image of the monster is endued with apparent vitality. Wisdom can give a semblance of life to the most doomed cause; and the bulk of mankind read only with their eyes, and not at all with their thoughts. The image of the Roman emperor was, in ancient days, made an object of worship. Christians suffered rather than by such an act of worship prove disloyal to Christ: like their spiritual ancestors, they refused to worship the image which the world-power had set up; they were willing to render to Cæsar the things that were Cæsar’s, but the homage which belonged to God they refused to any but their God. These are but types of those who have refused, though tempted by specious eloquence and sagacious subtlety, to offer homage to any mere world-power; for the golden image is ever set up upon the plains of this world: its glitter and its vitality survive the storm and the conflict of the ages: it speaks, and men hear and adore, for they walk by sight, not by faith; and it needs no imperial or papal edict to doom to social death and failure those who refuse to shape their conduct by considerations of self-interest, and who are sure to be treated as fanatics because they follow right and conscience and Christ.

And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
(16, 17) And he causeth . . .—Better, And he [i.e., probably, the second wild beast, and not the image, as in the latter clause of the last verse] makes all men, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free and the slaves, that they should give them a mark upon their right hand or upon their forehead: (and) that no one should be able to buy or to sell but he who has the mark, the name of the wild beast, or the number of his name. We have read of the sealing of the servants of God in their foreheads (Revelation 7:3): we shall hear of it again (Revelation 22:4); the power of evil also has its mark or stamp. As slaves received a brand or mark in their flesh, betokening to whom they belonged, so in the spiritual conflict there is on the side of good and of evil a brand or mark. St. Paul spoke of such marks in his own body that proved him a slave of Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:17). In the same way the subtle false prophet, the abettor of world-power, seeks to impress a mark on all, on the penalty of complete social exclusion. It is utterly unnecessary to take this brand of evil literally, any more than we took the seal of Christ literally. That seal we understood as spiritual, in the faith and in the character; this evil brand we must interpret in like manner. It surely means the acquiescence in character and action to the principles of this tyrannical world-power: the right hand is the symbol of toil and social intercourse; the forehead is the symbol of character, as time is ever writing its awful tale upon men’s brows. There have been days when men’s faith has been read only too plainly by a hostile world, and when their simple trust in Christ caused Christians to be suspected, and when “men cast out their name as evil,” and when the mark of the beast was worn and gloried in everywhere. We might cite from the history of the past numberless such epochs. But are we sure that the days are gone? Are we sure that it is easy for simple, unaffected goodness and genuine faith to gain all it might gain? Are we sure that honesty, guilelessness, utter and strenuous truthfulness are not weighted in the race of life? The days of the future may bring intenser forms of this tyranny, as the days of the past have shown them; but the days of the present may afford us illustrations of how readily men may lose, lose much and lose terribly, rather than succumb to fashions which violate honour and dishonour Christ. But we read of more than a mark here: we read of a “name,” and the “number of a name.” What are we to understand by these?

And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
(18) Here is wisdom . . .—Translate, Hither is wisdom. This most difficult verse is introduced by this word of preface. Wisdom—indeed, the highest wisdom—is needed for those who would understand it. Two or three points ought to be noticed. (1) The verse surely implies that the understanding of this name and number is attainable; it warns us that wisdom and understanding are needed, but it as certainly leads us to believe that to wisdom and understanding a solution of the problem will be granted. (2) There is a variation in the MSS. respecting the number. Some MSS. read six hundred and sixteen; but the probability is in favour of the reading six hundred and sixty-six. In an excursus (Excursus B) will be found a short account of the various interpretations which have been given. (3) The clause “It is the number of a man,” has been rendered “For number is of man.” The number, then, is the combination of three sixes; there is a wisdom and understanding which may grasp its import, and that import is to be guided by the principle that it is the number of a man, or that number is of man—is, that is to say, a method of computation which is used by man, and used by God in order to symbolise something made thus more intelligible to man. Is the wisdom which is to solve this, then, the mere cleverness which can guess an acrostic or an enigma? or is it rather that the true heavenly wisdom, which is moral rather than intellectual, is needed to unite itself with understanding to solve the problem? Surely the dignity of the Apocalypse is sacrificed when we search for its meaning like children playing with conundrums rather than like men being guided by its principles. There is a wisdom which brings its sevenfold beam of heavenly light to the children of men—a wisdom pure, peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, without partiality, without hypocrisy—and when this wisdom rests on men in the fulness of its seven-fold perfection they may read the number of the beast, and see that, with all its vaunted strength, it is but weak; with all its vaunted perfection, it is imperfect; that though it vaunts itself as rich, increased in goods and needing nothing, it still lacks that “one needful thing”—faith in God, or the love by which faith works. Without this it will never attain even the appearance of that perfect heavenly number symbolised by seven; it may multiply itself in earthly strength—the power of worldliness into the power of worldly wisdom, and this again by the power of a hundred-fold satanic subtlety—but it will remain still short of the tokens of the kingdom of God; and the number when read will be, however godlike it looks, but the number of a man after all.

I am disposed, therefore, to interpret this “six hundred and sixty-six” as a symbolical number, expressing all that it is possible for human wisdom, and human power, when directed by an evil spirit, to achieve, and indicating a state of marvellous earthly perfection, when the beast-power has reached its highest development, when culture, civilisation, art, song, science and reason have combined to produce an age so nearly resembling perfection—an age of gold, if not a golden age—that men will begin to say that faith in God is an impertinence, and the hope of a future life a libel upon the happiness of the present. Then will the world-power have reached the zenith of his influence; then will only a wisdom descended from above be able to detect the infinite difference between a world with faith and a world without faith, and the great gulf which the want of a little heaven-born love can fix between an age and an age.

At the same time, I feel bound to place here, as well as in the Excursus, two other views—one because it has recently been advanced with conspicuous ability; the other because it is perhaps the most generally adopted, as it is certainly the most ancient, view. Both these interpretations are based upon the theory that the letters of the name, when added together, according to their numerical value, will make up six hundred and sixty-six. The first of these alluded to finds the word in Nero Cæsar. The second, and more ancient, finds it in Lateinos: this last was mentioned by Irenæus. It will be seen that both these solutions are at one in making the number point to the great Roman Power; and this was the great embodiment of the terrible spirit of self-sufficiency, tyranny, and utter godless worldliness with which St. John was familiar. These interpretations are interpretations in example, and as such probably true; but they are only types, as it seems to me, of that fuller and deeper view which takes the number as symbolical of that power which, whether directed by Nero, or inspired by Emperor or Pope, or false teacher, or military tyrant, has dazzled mankind by a fictitious glory, a fictitious civilisation, and a fictitious religion, or deceived them by holding out the promise of splendour and happiness without the knowledge and obedience of God, without law, without faith, and therefore without true joy. (Comp. Note of the “Three Frogs,” Revelation 16:13-14.)

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