Rev. 12:12 – Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the earth and the sea, for the Devil has come down to you with great fury, because he knows he has a short time. (HCSB)
Rejoice, O heavens … woe to the earth and the sea
As a result of Satan’s expulsion from heaven and the victory won by the blood of the Lamb and the word of the saints’ testimony, the voice in heaven declares, “Therefore rejoice, you heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the earth and the sea, for the Devil has come down to you with great fury, because he knows he has a short time” (v. 11).
There is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents, being transported by faith out of Satan’s kingdom of darkness into Christ’s kingdom of light (Luke 15:7). There is rejoicing on earth when Jesus casts out demons; when He rides triumphantly into Jerusalem; and when He rises from the dead, being declared the Son of God with power and defeating the Devil and his works. And there is rejoicing in “the heavens” – the sky, the stellar heavens, the unseen spiritual realm – when Satan is banished and his span of influence is severely restricted. The angels, the redeemed – even creation itself – exults in this epic event with everlasting benefits. There is rejoicing everywhere the glory of God dispels the darkness of Satan.
But in this passage there also is woe, because Satan has not yet been banished to the abyss for a time, or to hell for eternity. For a short time, Satan and his demons are confined to earth, and knowing his time is short, he rules his fleeting kingdom with great fury. It’s interesting to look ahead one verse, where the dragon sees that he has been thrown to earth. It’s as if he cannot believe his lot. Once an anointed cherub, once a mighty, beautiful, intelligent servant of God, with the universe at his disposal, he now finds himself confined to the “earth and the sea,” and he is not happy about it.
As we will see in the next section, he brandishes his fiery darts in the face of believing Jews and Gentiles. He empowers two magnificent beasts to deceive the world and to deprive those who call upon Jesus of the necessities of life. He promotes shameless blasphemy against God and counterfeits His miracles. He is angry indeed, and the earth and sea are well warned.
By “the earth and the sea,” the voice in heaven likely means those who live on large land masses as well as on islands, and those who engage in commerce across the watery depths. Satan will leave no stone unturned, no isle untouched, as he savages his own kingdom to harm God’s elect. “Furious at his expulsion from heaven, and knowing that his time on earth is short until he shall be cast down lower, when Christ shall come to set up His kingdom (Rev. 20:1, 2), Satan concentrates all his power to destroy as many souls as he can. Though no longer able to accuse the elect in heaven, he can tempt and persecute on earth. The more light becomes victorious, the greater will be the struggles of the powers of darkness; whence, at the last crisis, Antichrist will manifest himself with an intensity of iniquity greater than ever before” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, http://www.bible.cc/revelation/12-12.htm).
Four major views of the war in heaven
How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view this cosmic battle?
- Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – generally place this battle in heaven at the time of Christ’s death and resurrection. They appeal to the prophetic words of Jesus in John 12:31: “Now is the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be cast out.” They also point to New Testament authors who seem to confirm that a victory of this sort is accomplished by Christ in His death (Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14-15). Many preterists equate Michael with Jesus and the angels with the apostles; together they gain victory by truth over error, light over darkness, and sin over unbelief. The death of Christ, they argue, does not put Satan completely out of business but ends his career as the accuser of our brothers, his principal role in Old Testament times (Job 1-2; Zech. 3). Having been thrown to earth, Satan is limited in the scope of his influence and has but a short time to stamp out Christianity before it spreads across the globe.
- Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – often identify this war in heaven with the time of Christianity’s battle against heathenism in the days of Julian the Apostate, the emperor who sought to re-establish paganism in the empire from 361-363 A.D. The casting out of the dragon symbolizes the end of that conflict with the death of Julian in 363. The song of rejoicing that follows – in verses 10-12 – is that of Christians celebrating the establishment of the kingdom of God, which is to be understood as Rome under Christian rulers. The dragon is not finished, however, as he raises up heretics and persecutors from within the church. Some historicists see this as the papacy, without which the true church would have spread around the world.
- Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – tend to see the war in heaven as fulfillment of Daniel’s vision in Dan. 12:1 and the beginning of the “Great Tribulation.” Some futurists place this battle at the beginning of the seven-year tribulation; others, in the middle. Defeated in the heavenly realms, Satan wages a desperate battle against tribulation saints on earth but is defeated by the blood of the Lamb and the word of believers’ testimony. Though many tribulation saints will die as martyrs, having partaken in Christ’s death, they share in the victory the Lamb won through His resurrection and exaltation.
- Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – say the war in heaven retells the spiritual conflict depicted in verses 1-6, but from a heavenly perspective. As Jesus wins the battle on the cross, Michael in essence removes Satan’s flag from the heavenly map of battle. The song of rejoicing (vv. 10-12) celebrates Christ’s resurrection, His victory over Satan, and the inauguration of the New Covenant age (Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). Satan, who once was the accuser of our brothers, has lost all grounds for accusation in the death of Jesus and consequently has been hurled down from heaven. Satan’s activity now is limited to the earthly realm, accusing believers’ consciences against themselves and seeking to bring them under self-condemnation. In response, believers are to plead the blood of the Lamb in their own defense, to testify of Christ’s finished work on the cross as an offensive weapon against the evil one, and to find personal victory in martyrdom if necessary.
Next: The beast from the sea — Rev. 13:1-10