Revelation by the Numbers: 2–4

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This post is part of a series on the numbers in Revelation, John’s book of prophecy at the end of the Bible. It covers the numbers 2, 3, 3 1/2, and 4, including the 4 horsemen.

You can read all these entries in order, or feel free to skip around.

Note on Interpreting Revelation

Our first number: 2,000. That’s how many years theologians have been disagreeing wildly about the meaning of the visions in Revelation, primarily based on a disagreement about the timeline of the events described. Briefly, here are the major views:

  • Preterist: The events of Revelation are mostly ancient, describing events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
  • Historicist: The events of Revelation are mostly historical, describing events throughout human history up to and including the present.
  • Futurist: The events of Revelation are mostly future, describing events at some unknown time ahead.
  • Idealist: The events of Revelation are mostly symbolic, taking place again and again at various times and on various scales throughout the life of the church.

My interpretations tend toward the futurist view for two reasons: first, the concrete interpretation of symbols in Scripture is fraught with danger unless we have a heavenly guide. Indeed, every attempt to attach every symbol of Revelation to a historical event results in making excuses for why the numbers don’t always work out perfectly (for example, try to find a definitive list of the 7 kings represented by the beast’s 7 heads in Revelation 17).

And second, the futurist view is sufficiently vague that it can mostly be applied to the preterist or historicist views with little alteration. That means that talking about most of Revelation from a futurist viewpoint covers the most ground. For example, there’s a beast in Revelation 13 that is clearly some sort of king or emperor. A preterist might say it stands for Nero Caesar. A historicist may say it stands for the Roman Empire or a Roman Catholic pope. A futurist would say it stands for some unknown ruler, which includes both of the other options. Therefore, by generally aligning with this view, we can study Revelation without blinding ourselves to other possibilities.

This viewpoint—the futurist one—may not be correct. As with all study of Scripture, you should do your own work and cover it in prayer. And as always, feel free to contact me if you have comments or questions.

The Numbers

2 Edges of a Sword

The “one like a son of man” that John sees in the midst of the lampstands has a 2-edged sword coming out of His mouth (Revelation 1:16,2:12). Which seems odd, and painful, until we remember Hebrews 4:12:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Of course the Word of God comes from His mouth.

2 Witnesses to Prophesy

Between the sixth and seventh trumpets, after John eats the little scroll, God appoints 2 witnesses to prophesy for 1,260 days, presumably about the coming destruction (Revelation 11:3). They are granted power: to bring drought, to enact the plagues of Egypt, and to spit fire from their mouths against any who oppose them.

There are 2 specific Old Testament prophets with these powers: Moses, who brings the plagues (Exodus 7–12); and Elijah, who calls down fire (2 Kings 1:10–12) and stops the rain (1 Kings 17:1). Moses is known as the law-giver, and Elijah is known as a prophet; together, they represent the Law and the Prophets. Combined with the interpretations of the olive trees and the lampstands, below, we start to get a picture of these witnesses.

Anyway, the beast conquers and kills them, and they lie dead in the streets for 3 1/2 days until God takes them to Heaven and the city begins to crumble.

2 Olive Trees

These are the witnesses (Revelation 11:4). Simple enough. But why olive trees?

Start with the obvious: every time the Bible mentions oil, it means olive oil. Anointing with oil? Olive oil. Lamps burn oil? Olive oil. Olive oil comes from olives, which come from olive trees.

Now stretch: Zechariah also saw a vision of olive trees (Zechariah 4:3) in a setting like the throne room of Heaven—there’s a lampstand there, too. And an angel interprets the trees as “two anointed ones, that stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:14).

That’s not really helpful; we already knew that. But Zechariah sees something John doesn’t: branches from the olive trees fueling the lampstand with oil. We have to take a leap here, but I think it’s in the right direction: the oil itself is the Word of God (“Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)), and the olive trees, and witnesses, are the prophets who speak the Word of God to the people of God.

2 Lampstands

These are also the witnesses (Revelation 11:4). But if olive trees produce olive oil to light lampstands, how are the witnesses both the source and the consumers of the fuel?

Well, unfortunately Zechariah saw only 1 lampstand (though it did have 7 lamps), so we can’t ask him (Zechariah 4:2). Or maybe in Zechariah’s day there was only 1 lampstand, but in John’s day there are 2.

What did John have 2 of that Zechariah only had 1, that could represent messengers of God?

Again, we have to take a leap, but one possibility is “covenant.” Zechariah’s lampstand would represent the Old Testament, or the Law and the Prophets, or the old covenant—the one expressed through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. John’s second lampstand would represent the New Testament, or the Gospels, or the new covenant—the one mediated by Jesus Christ Himself.

We might say, if we are right, that God has given us the witness of the Old and New Testaments for “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105). And conveniently, the 2 Testaments were written by inspired authors who spoke (or wrote) the Word of God to the people of God, making them prophets and neatly tying up this strange metaphor of olive trees and lampstands and witnesses.

2 Wings of an Eagle

Remember the woman “clothed with the sun” who has a crown of stars? The one who escaped into the wilderness away from the dragon trying to eat her newborn? We previously identified her as Israel.

How did she get there? On wings of eagles, of course (Revelation 12:14).

Who else has eagles’ wings? “Those who wait for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:31) come first to mind, but there’s a closer reference. When Moses goes up Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, God speaks to him:

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
—Exodus 19:4

Israel herself has eagles’ wings, given to her by God to bring her out of the mouth of an oppressive empire into the wilderness. Once she is there, God cares for her by bringing manna and quail. The wandering in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt lasted 40 years, not 1,260 days, so the periods are not the same, but they are very similar.

2 Beasts

One of the reasons Revelation is so confusing is that there are two beasts. And a dragon. John helpfully refers to all three of them repeatedly until everybody is confused.

We first sight the first beast in Revelation 13:1–10, where John describes it as “like a leopard” with bears’ feet and a lion’s mouth. It rises out of the sea, and the dragon hands over its power and authority to this beast. Its head is mortally wounded, but healed, and the whole earth worships it for 42 months while it makes war on the saints and conquers them.

Then there’s a second beast in Revelation 13:11–18, which John describes as “rising out of the sea” and having “two horns like a lamb” but “speaking like a dragon.” It’s a prophet of the first beast, exercising its authority and making everyone worship the first beast. It even performs miracles to deceive the nations.

This is the beast everyone talks about. The one who marks everyone. The one with the number.

2 Horns of the Second Beast

The second beast, the one that rises out of the earth, has 2 horns “like a lamb,” but it speaks with a voice “like a dragon” (Revelation 13:11). He’s trying to look like the lamb—but where he has only 2 horns of power, the Lamb who was slain has 7 horns, representing complete power.

This deceptive beast is later identified as “the false prophet” (Revelation 16:13).

2 Reapings of the Earth

Jesus tells a parable called either “The Wheat and the Tares” or “The Wheat and the Weeds”. A farmer plants a field of wheat, and it begins to grow. At night, his enemy plants weeds in his field. In the morning, his farmhands ask whether they should weed the field, but he worries that they might pull up some of the wheat with the weeds. He asks them to wait until the harvest.

In Revelation 14:14–20, the harvest has arrived. Jesus, the one “like a son of man” on the cloud reaps the earth with a sickle, presumably gathering the wheat—the righteous—to Himself.

Then an angel with a second sickle reaps the earth again, this time gathering the weeds, which John sees as clusters of grapes to be trampled in “the great winepress of the wrath of God.”

After these reapings, there are no more second chances. The end has come, and the judgment was swift and decisive.

2 Times Paid Back

In the midst of the angels’ lament for Babylon, the second angel recommends a just punishment:

Pay her back as she herself has paid back others,
    and repay her double for her deeds;
    mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed.
—Revelation 18:6

The concept of multi-fold revenge appears repeatedly in Scripture, beginning way back with Cain. After Cain kills his brother Abel, and God condemns him to walk the earth as “a fugitive and a wanderer,” Cain complains that “[his] punishment is greater than [he] can bear”, fearing that any man finding him would kill him. But God responds, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (Genesis 4:10–15).

Cain’s descendant Lamech, another murderer, audaciously claims the same blessing for himself: “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23–24).

Despite Lamech’s misguidedness, he’s ultimately right. God reserves the right to vengeance for Himself: “Vengeance is mine, and recompense”, God says through Moses (Deuteronomy 32:35), speaking of His coming dealings with Israel’s enemies. Paul picks up this line and even quotes it, writing to the church at Rome, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Romans 12:19)

However you identify “Babylon” in Revelation, it is not for us to punish her; instead, we are to wait and see God’s justice in God’s time.

2 Deaths

We read in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed for man to die once, and then face judgment.” But here in Revelation we find a second death. First, the church in Smyrna is encouraged that “the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:11).

We have to wait 18 more chapters to find out what that second death is in Revelation 20:14:

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

The first death is, naturally, the death of the body. Then we face judgment. Then those weeds who were gathered in the second reaping are tied into bundles to be burned (Matthew 13:30) and thrown into the lake of fire.

3 Quarts of Barley

We discussed the 3 quarts of barley costing 1 denarius: it takes a day’s wages to feed 3 people on inferior grains. The people are alive, but hungry and poor.

3 Woes of Wars

The seven trumpet judgments are divided into two groups: the first 4, which are all natural disasters, and the final 3, which are all wars.

After the first 4 are complete, an angel flies over John and cries, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (Revelation 8:13)

The first woe is the locusts from the abyss, led by Abaddon. The second woe is the 200,000,000 terrifying horses. The third woe is all 7 plagues.

3 Plagues

Plagues appear all over Revelation; here is another set of 3. As part of the sixth trumpet judgment, 4 angels are released with 200,000,000 mounted troops breathing “fire and smoke and sulfur,” and “by these plagues a third of mankind was killed” (Revelation 9:18).

While the horses’ mouths kill by means of these plagues, they also have power in their tails, “for their tails are like serpents with heads, and by means of them they wound” (Revelation 9:19).

3 Angels With a Message

Immediately before the 2 reapings, 3 angels fly past John with “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth” (Revelation 14:6).

The first angel calls the earth to worship, reminding them that “the hour of his judgment has come.”

The second angel recalls the fall of Babylon, reminding the earth that the judgments have in fact begun.

The third and final angel warns the earth away from following in Babylon’s footsteps by worshiping the beast or receiving his mark on their hands and foreheads.

John summarizes their message in Revelation 14:12:

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.

And immediately afterward, the earth is harvested.

3 Unclean Frog Spirits

The seven bowl judgments partially mirror the plagues of Egypt. And just as Egypt had a plague of frogs, so when the sixth bowl is poured out, the whole world is terrorized by “three unclean spirits like frogs” that come out of the dragon and the beast and the false prophet (Revelation 16:13).

These frog spirits act as ambassadors, gathering the kings of the earth and their armies to do battle against the armies of God.

3 Parts of the City

The seventh bowl judgment brings destruction to the enemies of God, including to “the great city”—presumably Babylon—which is split into 3 parts.

Even among those who hold to a specific view of Revelation, the meaning of these 3 parts is debated. Is the city literally split? Is it divided among 3 rulers? Are there 3 successive judgments unleashed on the city? Is 3 symbolic of total destruction?

I must confess that I don’t know, either, and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious solution.

3 Professions Mourn Babylon

While the 3 parts of Babylon remain a mystery, after its destruction 3 very clear factions mourn its demise: kings, merchants, and shipmasters.

The kings mourn her because their political alliances with her had brought them power (Revelation 18:9–10).

The merchants mourn her because the rich citizens of Babylon purchased their luxury wares, and now the remaining poor cannot support them (Revelation 18:11–17).

The shipmasters mourn her because Babylon brought in goods from the whole earth on ships, and now their trade routes will run dry (Revelation 18:17–20).

In each case, reliance on the opulence of Babylon had brought these professions power and wealth, and the destruction of the city brings them despair.

3 1/2 Days Lying in State

The 2 witnesses are given authority to prophesy, to spit fire, to withhold rain, and to bring plagues for 1,260 days. Then the beast kills them.

Their bodies lie in the street in the city for 3 1/2 days while the people “gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb” (Revelation 11:9). Those people rejoice that the prophecies have ceased—the witnesses have been torment to those left on earth, reminding them of their wickedness and of the sovereignty of the God they have forgotten.

Yet despite the ignominy of lying in the street, I can’t help but feel that they are better described as lying in state, a final desperate witness and testimony to the people who jeer over their corpses.

At the end of the days, the witnesses rise again, filled with the breath of God, and God calls them to Heaven. As they ascend, the city is struck with an earthquake, destroying 1/10 of it and killing 7,000 people.

This vision raises 2 questions: first, what city? John writes that it is “the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified” (Revelation 11:8). Jesus was crucified, of course, in Jerusalem; but it has become so evil that the angel compares the Holy City of God to Sodom, which God destroyed by fire from Heaven, and to Egypt, where God brought down 10 disastrous plagues. If Babylon has fallen, how much more has Jerusalem.

The other question is, what’s up with 3 1/2 days? We know that 3 1/2 is half of 7, but where are the other days? God calls them to Heaven immediately after these 84 hours, and the vision is over.

Recall that they prophesied for 1,260 days, which is close to 3 1/2 years. Then the 3 1/2 days of lying in the street, if interpreted as 3 1/2 years instead, complete their work of 7 years, which would be a good time to be called to Heaven.

4 Living Creatures

John’s vision of the throne room of Heaven requires great imagination. One of the familiar symbols, however, are the 4 living creatures surrounding the throne (Revelation 4:6–8).

Ezekiel also sees 4 living creatures around the throne of God (Ezekiel 1:5), but his are slightly different.

John sees 1 like a lion, 1 like an ox, 1 like a man, and 1 like an eagle; Ezekiel sees each having 4 faces: 1 like a lion, 1 like an ox, 1 like a man, and 1 like an eagle.

John’s living creatures have 6 wings each; Ezekiel’s have 4 wings each, plus 2 arms.

John’s living creatures are full of eyes; Ezekiel’s are each bound to a wheel within a wheel, and the wheels are covered in eyes.

And while it appears that Ezekiel’s living creatures carry the throne of God, John’s seem to lead worship! They cry “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8) And the 24 elders around the throne respond.

I won’t even try to interpret the differences between Ezekiel’s and John’s visions; instead, just sit in awe of the splendor of the throne and the variety of beings worshiping the One who sits on it.

4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Perhaps the most well-known picture of the apocalypse is the 4 horsemen. Most people, even non-Christians, know their names: Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. These 4 powers are released as the first 4 of the 7 seals of the scroll nobody could open except the Lamb who was slain.

Even in the context of the numbers of Revelation, we already know them because of the numbers involved.

The first horseman, traditionally named Conquest, rides a white horse and has a bow and a crown, coming out “conquering, and to conquer” (Revelation 6:2).

The second horseman, traditionally named War, rides a bright red horse and has a great sword, coming out “to take peace from the earth” (Revelation 6:4).

The third horseman, traditionally named Famine, rides a black horse and has a pair of scales, coming out to dramatically raise the price of food (Revelation 6:5–6).

The fourth horseman, explicitly named Death in the text, rides a pale horse, and is followed by Hades, coming out to unleash the power of the other 3 to kill 1/4 of the earth. We learn when the fifth seal is opened that those killed by the horsemen are not only the wicked, but include martyrs as well.

4 Angels Standing At the 4 Corners of the Earth

The sixth seal brings natural destruction in the form of an earthquake, a blackened sun, a blood-red moon, and the stars shaken from their place. But God knows those who are His, and before disaster strikes, He seals them on their foreheads.

But the world has already begun to fall apart! When 1/4 of the earth is killed, how can we divide the righteous from the unrighteous?

Enter 4 angels, standing at the 4 corners of the earth and holding back the 4 winds. They keep these disasters at bay “until we [the angels, maybe?] have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3).

In our discussion of the significance of the number 7, we mentioned that 4 is the number of the earth; here we see it explicitly: controlling the natural powers of the earth takes 4 angels, 1 per “corner.”

4 Angels Prepared

The sixth trumpet releases “the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates” (Revelation 9:14) “to kill a third of mankind” (Revelation 9:15).

There is a strong temptation to identify these 4 angels with the 4 angels from the 4 corners of the earth—and maybe they are the same! But they seem different to me.

The corner angels are withholding natural disasters. Remember, they are instructed, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3).

But these 4 new angels wield a human army, an impossibly massive one with 200,000,000 horses. The enemies that defeat Israel—Assyria and Babylon—both come from the east, from the direction of the Euphrates where these angels are bound. It seems natural for the final destroying army to come from there as well.

And “the 4 corners of the earth” is very, very different than “the great river Euphrates”—that would require only 1 angel to hold it back, the 1 in the east.

So I may be wrong, but these seem like new angels bringing a new destruction, one wrought by man and not nature. Not that either quartet is better, or safer, or less likely to kill the righteous and wicked alike. Just that John describes them very differently, and since he’s the one with the vision, I say we listen.

4 Sides of the City

When I was younger, I lived in a city called Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. The city is, despite its name, almost square. Before that, I lived near Washington, D.C., which looks like someone started drawing a square on a map, got to the Potomac River, and gave up.

With a few exceptions, cities aren’t square. But the City of God is. Throughout Scripture, perfect squares are associated with the presence of God: the holy of holies in the tabernacle and the temple are both square. Ezekiel sees a square city that is 4,500 cubits (about 1.27 miles) on each side (Ezekiel 48:16), “And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord Is There” (Ezekiel 48:35).

And now John writes, “The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia” (Revelation 21:16). A stadium was about 600 feet long, so this was a giant city, about 1,363 miles on each side.

This monstrous city is almost half the size of the United States, larger than the 9 biggest states put together (if you exclude Alaska, it’s bigger than the next 17 put together).

Put another way, it’s 50% larger than India. It’s more than 90 times the size of modern-day Israel. On a list of largest countries, it would rank 7th. It’s more than a million times the size of the city Ezekiel saw.

And its prodigious size isn’t even its most surprising attribute, as we’ll see later.

Up Next

Next week’s installment of “Revelation by the Numbers” includes [a supernatural tree][rbtn-5-tree], a bunch of locusts, and some confusion over how many tribes of Israel there are.

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