This post is part of the series “Revelation by the Numbers”
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 30, 42, 100, 144, 666, 1,000, and 1,260, including the number of the beast.
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.
30 Minutes of Silence
In a book of questions, one part stands out. All throughout Revelation, there are noises. The voice that first speaks to John sounds like a trumpet; the throne is surrounded by thunders; the creatures around the throne sing eternal songs; the living creatures have voices like thunder.
The tumult at the end of the world is noisy.
But “when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). In the midst of all that chaos, all that shouting, the mountains crashing down and the islands fleeing and the worship of the multitude, something shakes the foundations of heaven into silence. What could it be?
Before I take a guess, hear from the psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Just as God is in the thunders, God is also in the stillness.
Okay, here we go. It seems to me that we get a hint about the silence from the Old Testament prophet Zechariah. He sees Israel scattered to the winds, and the Lord promises to return Israel to Zion and come to live among them. Zechariah says,
Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.
Indeed, heaven is silent in anticipation. They know the end has come, or is about to come; God is finally making good on all His promises; the Almighty is on the move.
42 Months of Trampling
Here’s another entry in our ongoing series of vaguely 3-and-a-half-year periods. In this case, the “nations…will trample the holy city for forty-two months” (Revelation 11:2).
It seems self-explanatory: the non-Christian world will run roughshod over the city of God, which is the city of Jerusalem, for 42 months. But we have to ask what’s going on around it to really understand.
John is instructed to “measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there” (Revelation 11:1). This measuring should ring some bells: Ezekiel also measured the temple in Ezekiel 41 (well, he stood around while an angel measured it for him).
Consider also that throughout the New Testament, the temple refers symbolically to the body of Christ. In that sense, we’ve actually already seen John measuring “the temple.” Back in Revelation 7, he writes “the number of the sealed” from each tribe of Israel. Those sealed were to be kept from harm (Revelation 9:4); soon afterward, the 7 trumpet judgments begin.
Taking all these clues together suggests that we are seeing basically the same image: John is measuring (counting) the true church, and those who are not part of it—those who are in the city but not in the temple—are subjected to calamity for 42 months.
42 Months of Authority
Remember like fifty words ago when I said that the Gentiles, those not part of the church of Christ, would be subjected to calamity for 42 months?
A couple of chapters later, we learn that the saints are also subjected to 42 months of torture. Only the source differs.
And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months…Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.
Those who suffer from the trumpet judgments are bearing the righteous wrath of God; the saints suffer the unearned violence of the first beast, the one who comes out of the sea.
100 Percent of the Grass
This number is a bit of a cheat, because John actually writes, “all green grass was burned up” (Revelation 8:7) as part of the first trumpet judgment. I changed it to “100 percent” so it would fit into a list of numbers.
Some interpreters, of the preterist mindset, suggest that the earth and the trees refer to the Roman Empire and important people, respectively, while the grass represents commoners. But of course not all commoners are killed, because there are clearly some left in later chapters. And for what purpose would just 1/3 of important people but 100% of common people be killed by fire?
Some historicists, remembering the seventh plague of Egypt (hail, Exodus 9:25–26), say that “grass” actually represents all vegetation and crops, rendering the earth completely unsuitable for life.
And some idealists interpret these disasters as symbolic of repeated ecological events throughout church history, including the plague in Egypt and various famines and environmental disasters since then.
In any case, 2 things remain true: followers of God are not harmed; and the earth is dying at the command of God.
Speaking of hail, the greatest destruction of the natural world comes with the seventh bowl judgment. A cataclysmic earthquake, the strongest in the history of the earth, shakes the ground, destroys “the great city” of Babylon, crumbles mountains, and buries islands. And just in case that wasn’t enough, John writes, God tops it off with “great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, [falling] from heaven on people” (Revelation 16:21).
Here in 2019, we panic at the thought of hail the size of golf balls. The worst hailstorms can cause more than a billion dollars in damage. But none of those hailstones approached 100 pounds; the largest on record is in the 2-pound range, 50 times smaller.
No wonder “every island fled away” (Revelation 16:20).
(See also Revelation 11:19, where we also see “heavy hail”.)
144 Cubits of Wall
Near the very end of Revelation, past the seals and the trumpets and the bowls, past the beasts and the witnesses and the prophets and the wars, John is shown a vision of the New Jerusalem. His angelic guide helpfully measures the city—and it’s enormous.
As we’ve already seen, it’s 12,000 stadia on a side, more than 1,300 miles. We’ve seen its 12 foundations and 12 gates. And now we see its walls, “144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement” (Revelation 21:17). A cubit was about 18 inches, so 144 cubits is about 216 feet, an imposing edifice of “jasper”—which to John would have been a translucent green emerald-like stone.
Three parts of the description of the wall warrant specific consideration.
First, the city is 1,300 miles tall, yet its wall is only 0.003% of that height. Walls on earth never attain that height. The Indian city of Mehrangarh has incredible walls, but they are only about 120 feet tall, just over half the height of these. The Great Wall of China is rarely taller than 25 feet. It’s possible John meant the wall is 144 feet thick, which would also be incredible. The Great Wall of China is less than 20 feet thick.
John’s point—God’s point—is that the wall is incredible; it’s unimaginably huge. Even if God were not literally present in the city, it would be protected. And this makes sense: when Ezekiel measures the city, and when John measures the temple, the measurements indicate protection.
Second, 144 is a nice, clean square of 12. And 12 is one of our nice, clean symbolic numbers. It’s possible John is speaking literally, that the wall really is 144 cubits tall or thick. Or he may intend to say that the wall is sufficient. It is as tall as it needs to be to keep out the enemies of God; it is as thick as it needs to be to withstand whatever comes against it.
Third, apparently an angel’s measurement is the same as a human measurement. Either angels are human-size, which is an interesting possibility, or John has in mind the resurrected, transfigured, perfected bodies of humans in heaven being no longer “lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:4).
666, the Number of the Beast
John gives us perhaps the most famous number in the Bible. He is announcing the second beast, the one that rises from the earth and has 2 horns like a lamb. The beast puts in place an economic injunction that “no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark” (Revelation 13:17), regardless of wealth or social status.
John knows the number, but he doesn’t explain how he knows. He writes simply,
This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
A full discussion of this number would require volumes, but a few things may be said briefly.
First, there is disagreement about the actual number. Some ancient Greek texts, including the oldest known, read 616 (χιϛ) instead of 666 (χξϛ). I am frustrated that we do not know this number. I wondered if it required two entries here. But while annoying, this confusion seems unlikely to pose a problem in reality, because the beast has many other identifying markers.
Second, it’s interesting that John apparently knows the number of the beast, but not the name of the beast, even though the mark of the beast is either “the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Revelation 13:17). Or perhaps he does know the name of the beast but dares not write it down for some reason. For example, if it were, as he says, “the number of a man” and that man were alive when he was writing, that man may not appreciate being named, and if he is as powerful as John says, anybody associated with John’s writings would be in danger.
Third, if the number of the beast is the number of a man, then either the beast is a man, or there is a man who can be confused with the beast. You may have assumed the beast was a man, but it’s important to be clear.
Finally, while nobody can agree on the meaning of this number, most scholars fall in one of a few categories:
- The number of the beast refers to a specific human by means of “gematria,” which is the practice of assigning numbers to components of a name and then composing them into a single value. The easiest way to do this is to write the name in Hebrew, because in Hebrew the same symbol can stand for a letter or a number. Then adding up the letters gives you a number for the name1. A popular identification is “Nero Caesar”, the emperor of Rome in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 68 AD. His name in Hebrew looks like נרון קסר, and it has the value 666. But Nero is not alone! Throughout history, pretty much every disliked leader, including Ronald Reagan, various Roman Catholic popes, and the prophet Muhammad, has found his name associated with this value, one way or another.
- The number of the beast refers to the length of the reign of the beast. This interpretation makes little sense to me; John has not been shy about specifying other durations, including the perplexing 5 months of locust warfare.
- The number refers to the ultimate disfavor from God. Recall that 3 is seen as the divine number, and 4 as the human (or earthly) number, so 7 is the number of completion. Then 6 is profoundly incomplete, and by implication evil. If the triune God is seen as 3 sevens, then the Deceiver is reasonably seen as 3 sixes, or 666. This interpretation is also a bit suspect, because John did not write “six six six”, but instead characters that specifically indicate “six hundred sixty six”.
- The number refers to a previous usage of 666 in the Bible, specifically Ezra 2:13, where the number of the sons of Adonikam is listed as 666. Of course, we know nothing more about Adonikam except that his name means something like “the Lord is risen.” So this interpretation doesn’t appear to teach us anything, which contradicts 2 Timothy 3:16.
- The number is a mathematical curiosity. For example, the first 6 Roman numerals (I/1, V/5, X/10, L/50, C/100, and D/500) add up to 666. Also, 6 x 6 = 36, and the sum of the integers from 1 to 36 is 6662. But these, and many similar theories, have both no basis and no explanatory power, so they should probably be discarded.
1,000 Years of Prison
The beast and the armies of the enemies of God have just been defeated by the sword in the mouth of Jesus the Christ. The beast and the false prophet were “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Revelation 19:20), and the armies were killed.
Then an angel appears with a key and a chain. He chains up the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan”, like a pet and locks him in “the bottomless pit” for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:2–3). The angel shuts and seals the pit and throws away the key.
Wait, no, he doesn’t. He… apparently keeps the key around? Because “After [the thousand years are ended] he [Satan] must be released for a little while.” (Revelation 20:4).
Why? I have no idea. Why not just have Jesus destroy him and be done with it? Why wait around?
And did you notice that the imagery is exactly like the death and resurrection of Jesus? Seized, thrown in a pit/cave, sealed in and left for a while, only to be released some time later. The extreme measures taken to seal him in indicate the thoroughness of his imprisonment: he’s not getting out until God says he does. (Actually, that’s true of Christ as well: He rose precisely when the Father resurrected Him, and not a moment before.)
Well, there are some differences. At the end of the 1,000 years, the dragon is released. He, of course, is somewhat upset by his imprisonment, and he immediately wages war on the saints of God, leading the armies of the nations to besiege “the beloved city” (Revelation 20:9). But this time, instead of Jesus riding on a white horse, fire from heaven destroys the armies; no fighting needed. The dragon is captured again and thrown this time not into the pit but into the lake of fire where the beast and the false prophet are waiting. And from that fire there is no escape.
What is the significance of 1,000 years? If it sounds like John just picked a big number, you’re on the right track. Several other Biblical authors use 1,000 to mean “a lot”: God “[shows] steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:6 and Deuteronomy 7:9); Samson reportedly killed 1,000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone (Judges 15:15); Solomon sacrificed 1,000 offerings on the altar at Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4); and there are others.
This 1,000 years has caused perhaps more conversation over the last 2,000 years than any other part of Revelation; however, that discussion has mostly centered not around the imprisonment of the dragon but the reign of the saints with Christ.
1,000 Year Reign
What is everybody else doing while the beast and the false witness are burning in the lake of fire and the dragon is chained in the bottomless pit for 1,000 years?
Well, “those to whom the authority to judge was committed” and “those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God” and “those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands” all “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4).
But what all that means is even more confusing than the imprisonment of the beast. While most of the book of Revelation has 4 main interpretive stances (preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist), this part adds 3 more: premillennial, postmillennial, and amillennial. And of course these 3 do not directly align with any of the other 4, although some match up better than others.
Premillennialists say that Christ will return before this 1,000-year period. That means they think that Jesus will return and begin this magnificent period of unity under His rule.
Postmillennialists say that Christ will return after this 1,000-year period. That means they think that the Word will be preached to the nations and, somehow, all nations will be united in faith, and then Jesus will appear.
Amillennialists say that the 1,000-year reign refers to the church age. That means that the reign of Christ began with His birth, His ministry, His death, or His resurrection, and continues to this day, and will not end until He comes again to usher in the New Heaven and the New Earth, at which point Satan, who was mortally wounded at the cross, will be finally defeated and thrown into the lake of fire. (You might notice that it’s been more than 1,000 years. That’s okay; as we saw with the imprisonment of the dragon, this number is more likely than most to be symbolic.)
These views are wildly different! Either we are staring down a future of decay and corruption until Jesus returns to set it right; or we are responsible for bringing about the 1,000-year reign through evangelism and the power of the Holy Spirit; or we are in the middle of the 1,000-year reign right now, and we have to wonder just how well we’re ruling.
I wish I had an answer for you (and for me!). I really do. But I just don’t.
1,260 Days of Witness
The temple is measured: the church of Christ is secure. The court outside the temple is not measured: the Gentiles are in danger. The holy city will be trampled by the nations for 42 months.
And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.
This period is exactly 42 months, if a month is 30 days long. Of course, months are not all exactly 30 days long in any calendar, but it mostly lines up.
Which raises the question—why does it only mostly line up? Why not give exactly the same time period, measured in the same units, for each event? Why not say the city will be trampled for 1,260 days, or that the witnesses will prophesy for 42 months?
One possibility is to enable the interpretation that the days are years, so the 1,260 days imply 1,260 years of witness. Some historicists identify this with the period of rule by Roman Catholic popes before the Protestant Reformation, for example.
Another is that these days recall similar periods in Daniel 12, where he writes, “And from the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be 1,290 days.” (Daniel 12:11). The final vision of Daniel (chapters 10, 11, and 12) requires significant study on its own. For us, it both satisfies our query—Why days? Because Daniel used days—and raises a new question: Why don’t the time periods line up? They seem so similar, but they’re off by a full (30-day) month.
But Daniel’s not done. No, he gives us yet a third period to consider: “Blessed is he who waits and arrives at the 1,335 days” (Daniel 12:12). Which is another month and a half.
We are not going to answer these questions here; for now, asking them is enough.
1,260 Days of Nourishment
After the witnesses have prophesied their 1,260 days, been killed by the beast, lain in the street for 3 1/2 days, and been raised to Heaven at the word of God, John sees the sign of the woman and the dragon. The dragon waits for the woman to give birth, to eat her child. But the child is snatched away to Heaven, and the woman flees to the wilderness, and the dragon is frustrated.
John’s timeline suddenly gets sketchy. He goes from the vision of the woman and the dragon to a war between the angels and the dragon. Michael the archangel and the armies of God defeat the forces of the dragon and throw them out of Heaven onto earth, where he (the dragon) pursues the woman. But he can’t catch the woman—the very creation itself conspires to protect her—so he pursues her offspring instead.
We have previously identified this woman as the nation of Israel, and her child as Jesus, and her offspring as Christians. So John’s vision of the woman giving birth and fleeing to the wilderness must have happened after the war between the angels, but John writes it before.
Whenever it happens, the woman—Israel—is nourished in the wilderness for 1,260 days: another 42 months, or 3 1/2 years (Revelation 12:6). These may be the same as the days of the witnesses—the implication being that Israel is kept safe while the witnesses preach the gospel of Christ and the beast and the dragon make war on them (her “offspring”) instead. Or they may be different, either before (so the days of Israel’s protection end when the witnesses start preaching) or after (so the witnesses preach the first 42 months, then judgment breaks loose and Israel is protected through the coming tribulations).
Israel has, in fact, been sent into the wilderness before. In their escape from Egypt, they spent 40 years there, nourished by manna from Heaven. They learned then that wilderness is not a place you want to live; it is an arid, empty land. When the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness after His baptism and before He began His ministry, it was not to comfort Him, but to prepare Him for the coming days.
What if John’s vision of the woman’s flight from the dragon into the wilderness is more like Jesus’s temptations while he fasted alone and less like Israel’s wandering while they feasted on manna and quail?
Then the 1,260 days are not days of protection, but days of preparation. The events John describes sure sound like they need both.
The fifth and final installment of this “Revelation by the Numbers” series takes us to infinity, and beyond! Actually, it starts with 1,600 of something incredibly gross, introduces the largest number used in the Bible, and, by the end, actually does go to infinity.
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Of course, you can come up with systems to do this in any language; Hebrew just makes it easy. Let’s assign a=1, b=2, etc.; then “Versenotes” = 21 + 5 + 18 + 19 + 14 + 15 + 20 + 5 + 19 = 127. To get to 666 will require at least 666/26 = 26 letters in a name, though, so you’ll need to find a pretty long name, or use a different numbering scheme. ↩
Don’t just take my word for it! Try it: 1+2+…+35+36 = (1+36)+(2+35)+…+(17+20)+(18+19) = 37 * 18 = 666. ↩