Previously: The rider on a white horse – Revelation 19:11-16
Rev. 19:17 – Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out in a loud voice, saying to all the birds flying in mid-heaven, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of commanders, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and of their riders, and the flesh of everyone, both free and slave, small and great.”
19 Then I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and against His army. 20 But the beast was taken prisoner, and along with him the false prophet, who had performed signs on his authority, by which he deceived those who accepted the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. Both of them were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 The rest were killed with the sword that came from the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds were filled with their flesh. (HCSB)
The beast and his armies defeated
Next, John sees an angel standing on – or some translations say in – the sun. He cries out in a loud voice to the birds, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of commanders, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and of their riders, and the flesh of everyone, both free and slave, small and great” (vv. 17-18).
We should note a stark contrast between this supper, in which the fowls of the air are summoned to feast on the corpses of the wicked (and their horses), and the marriage supper of the Lamb, in which believers enjoy intimate fellowship with the Bridegroom. As in Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast for the king’s son, those who are not dressed appropriately for a marriage feast are cast into outer darkness, while those who respond positively to the king’s invitation, and willingly wear the white linen robes the king provides for all guests, enjoy the comforts of the royal court (see Matt. 22:1-14).
Flesh and birds
Predatory birds are drawn to battlefields in other passages of scripture. For example, young David tells Goliath he will give the corpses of the Philistine camp to the birds of the sky and the creatures of the earth (1 Sam. 17:46). And in Ezek. 39:17-20 the Lord instructs the prophet to assemble every kind of bird and all the wild animals on the mountains of Israel, where they will feast on the flesh of mighty men and drink the blood of the earth’s princes. John often carries Old Testament imagery forward into Revelation, and he does so here to illustrate the magnitude and finality of God’s judgment of the world’s wicked.
The word “flesh” appears five times in these two verses and refers to all who oppose Christ. The birds will devour the flesh of kings, the flesh of commanders, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh or horses and of their riders, and the flesh of everyone, both free and slave, small and great. Warren Wiersbe writes, “While John’s immediate reference is to the human body, eaten by the vultures, there is certainly a deeper meaning here: man fails because he is flesh and relies on flesh. The Bible has nothing good to say about fallen human nature. Recall the Lord’s words before the Flood: ‘My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh’ (Gen. 6:3). (See also John 3:6; 6:63; Rom. 7:18; Phil. 3:3.) ‘All flesh is as grass’ (1 Peter 1:24) and must be judged” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 19:11).
Now, as the birds hover en masse over the battlefield at the angel’s beckoning, John sees the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and against His army (v. 19). Their resistance to Christ belies their delusional belief that they have an opportunity to win – and worse, their apparent conviction that they are in the right. What compels sinful men and women to entertain the notion that they can defeat the Almighty or change the course of human history? Joseph A. Seiss comments:
We may wonder how rational men could be carried with one impulse into an attempt so daring and so absurd; but when people put the truth from them, and submit themselves to the Devil’s lead, what is there of delusion and absurdity into which they are not liable to be carried? How many among us comfort and assure themselves in their selfishness and sins with the belief that either there is no God, or that he is too good and merciful to fulfill his threatenings upon transgressors? To this there needs to be added only one step more, to defy his judgments, and with that goes pledge of battle and declaration of war with his Omnipotence (The Apocalypse: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, p. 440).
The Psalmist writes, “Why do the nations rebel and the people plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the Lord and His Anointed One.” What is the Lord’s response to this human madness? “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them. Then He speaks to them in His anger and terrifies them in His wrath” (Ps. 2:1-2, 4-5).
Seiss once again remarks, “What failure of love, what exhaustion of grace, what emptying of the sea of his infinite mercies, what decay and withdrawal of all kindly interest and affection must have occurred that there should be this laugh!” (p. 441). And yet for the beast and his armies, this is no laughing matter. In self-delusional futility; in the most vile hatred of a creature toward his Creator; in utter abandonment of all decency, the beast charges straight into the blade of the God-Man’s sword.
Verse 19 tells us the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies gather together to wage war against the rider on the horse and against His army. Verse 20 describes the outcome: “But the beast was taken prisoner, and along with him the false prophet, who had performed the signs in his presence. He deceived those who accepted the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image with these signs. Both of them were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.”
Where does this battle take place? Many commentators point to Rev. 16:12-14 and Rev. 16:16 to indicate the battle is waged at Armageddon. This is the only mention of “Armageddon” in the Bible. But the place is well known. The word “Armageddon” in Hebrew is har-megiddon, meaning “the mount of Megiddo.” Although there is no mountain by this name, the great city of Megiddo is strategically placed to guard the pass between the Mediterranean coast and the valley of Jezreel or Esdraelon.
This valley is the site of many important battles in the history of Israel. It is the place where earthly kings are no match for the Lord’s heavenly host; indeed, they are punished for oppressing God’s people (Judges 5:19). It is where the prophets of Baal are slaughtered in the days of Elijah (1 Kings 18:40). And it is where good king Josiah is killed, resulting in national mourning (2 Kings 23:29; 2 Chron. 35:20-25).
A common thread in the battles that take place here is that it is chosen ground where unrighteous nations attack the people of God. Certainly, Megiddo in scripture is connected with warfare. It is possible, however, that John’s reference to Megiddo is in fact a reference to Jerusalem.
David Stern writes, “[T]he final war may not take place at Har Megiddo at all, but in Jerusalem, at Har Migdo, the ‘mount of his choice fruit,’ i.e., the mountain of God’s blessing, Mount Zion. Mount Zion has already been mentioned at 14:1; moreover, the imagery resembles Joel’s picture of the Day of Adonai, when God’s power goes forth from Mount Zion against the forces of evil (Joel 2:1-11, 4:16-17 [3:16-17]; compare also Isaiah 31:4-9). The next passage (vv. 17-21) resembles 14:14-20, which also draws on imagery from Joel 4…. Strengthening the case further Zechariah 12:11 … mentions Jerusalem along with Megiddon” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 835).
So how should we view Armageddon? Some interpreters see real armies gathered in the broad valley for a future battle in which Satan deceives the world’s military powers to stand in the Holy Land and futilely resist the return of Christ.
Other commentators see Armageddon as a symbol of the final conflict between the powers of evil and the powers of God occurring throughout the earth. Therefore, Armageddon is not a specific geographic location but the entire world.
Others describe Armageddon in more figurative terms as a first-century name similar to “Waterloo,” spelling the utter defeat of those who oppose God, or as a word depicting any battle in which the Lord demonstrates His great power to defeat evil and rescue His own. It seems to make sense that a first-century fulfillment – or at least partial fulfillment – takes place in the destruction of the temple and the dispersion of Israel in 70 A.D. At the same time, the calamitous events of those days serves as a foretaste of Christ’s ultimate return and defeat of all who reject Him and oppress His people.
Lake of fire
The result of the battle is complete victory for Christ and utter defeat for the beast, the false prophet, and their armies. There is, however, a unique destiny for these two leaders. They are thrown alive into the lake of fire. This is the “eternal fire” prepared for Satan and his angels (Matt. 25:41). It draws from Old Testament imagery of the Valley of Hinnom, where apostate Israelites offer their children in fiery sacrifices to pagan gods, and in Jesus’ day when the valley serves as Jerusalem’s constantly burning trash heap. God’s judgment on the wicked is depicted as “fire and brimstone” in Ezek. 38:22.
The New Testament offers graphic depictions of fiery judgment for the wicked. John the Baptist describes a day when Christ will “burn up” the chaff “with fire that never goes out” (see Matt. 3:10-12). Jesus warns of “the gehenna of fire” or “hellfire” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:22, 29-30). He warns of the destruction (not annihilation) of body and soul in hell in Matt. 10:28. In Mark 9:43-48, Jesus cites the most important Old Testament reference to fiery punishment (Isa. 66:24) to urge His listeners to let nothing prevent them from entering life eternal (Mark 9:43-48). In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus describes fiery punishment in Hades, the intermediate state between life on earth and future resurrection and judgment. In Luke 17:29-30, fire and sulfur are identified as God’s means of punishing Sodom.
There are many other passages we could cite, but suffice it to say that fire and sulfur are consistently used throughout scripture to depict God’s righteous response to unrepentant sin. Ultimately, we see that death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). There is no longer a need for either one. All humans have died, been resurrected, and judged. The righteous enjoy intimate and eternal fellowship with Christ in the new heavens and earth, while unbelievers suffer in “outer darkness” in the lake of fire.
J.F. Walvoord and R.B. Zuck comment:
“The same inspired Word of God which so wonderfully describes the grace of God and the salvation which is available to all who believe is equally plain about the judgment of all who reject the grace of God. The tendency of liberal interpreters of the Bible to emphasize passages dealing with the love of God and to ignore passages dealing with His righteous judgment is completely unjustified. The passages on judgment are just as inspired and accurate as those which develop the doctrines of grace and salvation. The Bible is clear that judgment awaits the wicked, and the second coming of Christ is the occasion for a worldwide judgment unparalleled in Scripture since the time of Noah’s flood” (Revelation, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Rev. 19:19-21).
The phrase “lake of fire” is unique to the book of the Revelation. However, it serves as a synonym for the term gehenna, which Jesus used frequently to denote hell. The specific Old Testament allusion may be to Isa. 30:23–33 and Dan. 7:11. There are many prophetic passages that connect judgment with fire or burning, according to R.J. Utley. “This theme of an eternal fire is developed in apocalyptic Judaism (cf. Enoch 27:1ff; 54:1ff; 56:3ff; 90:26; IV Ezra 7:36; Apoc of Baruch 59:10; 85:13, list taken from George E. Ladd, Revelation, p. 258). This phrase is used in Revelation in 20:10, 14; 21:8. It was a place prepared for Satan and his angels, but humans who rebel against God will also find this as their ultimate dwelling place. It is the final dwelling place of Satan. It is the natural result of rebellion against God and is a permanent form of the abyss (cf. Matt. 25:46; Rev. 9:11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3)” (Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation, p. 133).
Without a trial?
The point here is that whoever the beast and false prophet are, their destiny is to precede all other unbelievers – and even Satan and his demons – into the lake of fire. All other human beings will be resurrected and brought into final judgment. Why are these two beings cast into hell without a “trial?” Actually, their trial is on earth and spans their lifetimes. They hear the gospel message. They see the hand of God in miracles and prophetic utterances. Surely, they must know the God who created them will call them into account. And yet they persist in making themselves gods – so much so that they knowingly align themselves with Satan.
What the beast and false prophet experience in the lake of fire is not a trial, but sentencing – and justice. We must note that every person’s “trial” is in this lifetime as well. We must decide how we answer the question Jesus asks in Matthew 16:15 – “Who do you say that I am?” At death, our eternal destiny fixed; there is no second chance (Heb. 9:27).
Joseph A. Seiss remarks about the beast:
“His worshippers held him to be invincible. They asked in the utmost confidence and triumph, Who is like unto the Beast? Who can war with him? But, without the striking of a blow, and with all his worshippers in arms around him, he is ‘taken,’ captured as a lion seizes his prey, dragged away from the field as a helpless prisoner. With all his power, greatness, and resurrection-vigour and immunity from death he is ‘taken.’ With greater ease than the Jewish mob took the unresisting Jesus, the Sitter on the white horse catches him away from the very centre of his hosts. All the resistance he makes is the same as if it were not. He cannot help himself, and all his armies cannot help him. He must go whither his mighty Captor would take him. Tophet gets its own. And into the lake of fire he sinks to rise no more” (The Apocalypse, pp. 441-42).
The rest were killed
Lastly, we see in verse 21 what becomes of the vast armies of the beast: “The rest were killed with the sword that came from the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds were filled with their flesh.” Their defeat is total; their destruction, complete. They ride confidently into battle on the heels of the beast, and end up as lifeless, bloated corpses, serving themselves up as a feast for carrion.
“The world at the highest development of its material and spiritual power is but a decorated carcass round which the eagles gather. It is characteristic that Antichrist and his kings, in their blindness, imagine that they can wage war against the King of heaven with earthly hosts; herein is shown the extreme folly of Babylonian confusion. The Lord’s mere appearance, without any actual encounter, shows Antichrist his nothingness” (Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Rev. 19:20).
Compare the effect of Christ’s presence in his glory with that in His humiliation. The apostle John records in chapter 18 of his Gospel that Judas leads a company of soldiers, along with temple police from the chief priests and Pharisees, to Gethsemane the night of Jesus’ betrayal. They brandish lanterns, torches and weapons as they search for Jesus, who finds them and asks, “Who is it you’re looking for?” They reply, “Jesus the Nazarene.” Jesus replies, “I am He.” Those three words, Jesus’ calm proclamation of His deity, cause His captors to step back and fall to the ground. Is it any wonder when He comes in judgment that the sword of His mouth will melt all opposition to His rule?
Four major views
So, how do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation see this passage?
Preterists – who see most of Revelation fulfilled in the early centuries of the church age – are somewhat divided. Some “fully-realized” preterists believe that all references to the Second Coming are fulfilled in 70 A.D., and therefore Jesus is not returning to earth. Most preterists, however, anticipate Christ’s return in much the same way as other interpreters of scripture. Even so, generally they do not see His return in this passage. Rather, these verses describe the battle waged and won by the Word of God between His first and second comings. Supporting this view, preterists point out that Christ is nowhere else said to return upon a horse. In addition, the conflict described in these verses is spiritual, not physical. Post-millennial preterists believe the world will be Christianized, and then Christ will return. Many preterists are amillennial, however, and some perhaps are premillennial. Regardless of one’s views of the millennium, preterists point to these verses as describing the victory of Christ through the church, not only in the destruction of national Israel and later the Roman Empire, but throughout world history.
Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – see the riding of Christ on the white horse in symbolic terms. Either this symbolizes the ongoing victories accomplished by the church through the Word of God, or it represents Christ’s continuing judgment upon His enemies as He conquers the nations at Armageddon, as described in Rev. 16:16. In the first case, the horse may depict the church as Christ’s vehicle in the earth. The sword proceeding out of Jesus’ mouth is an emblem of His truth, which cuts to the heart of men (Heb. 4:12). Christ’s bloody robe – and the unstained robes of His followers – illustrates that the work of redemption and judgment are the Lord’s alone. The call to the birds to eat the carrion illustrates the utter defeat of Papal Rome.
Futurists – who argue that the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – see in these verses the glorious, personal, and physical return of Christ to earth. He defeats the Antichrist and his armies at Armageddon, and then sits on the throne of David, ushering in the millennial kingdom. The riders behind Jesus are variously described as the church, or the saints of all time, or angels and the saints together. As for the sword that proceeds out of Jesus’ mouth, some futurists see this primarily as a spiritual battle in which the gospel wins out over the darkness of the world. Most, however, see the sword symbolizing the judgment of the wicked at the hands of the returning King of kings.
Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – tend to agree that these verses describe the return of Christ, but they are divided as to who accompanies Him – some saying it is the holy angels; others, the redeemed; and still others, both the angels and the redeemed. In any case, these armies are spectators, not direct participants in, what follows. The sword proceeding out of Christ’s mouth is His word of judgment on the last day (John 12:48). While there has always been opposition to Christ and His church, this passage describes a time in which antagonism against God’s people reaches its zenith. The beast and false prophet are seen symbolically by some spiritualists as representing Satan’s persecution of the church and his power to deceive on earth. For human followers of Satan, they already are spiritually dead but add to that the indignity of physical death in which the birds eat their carcasses.
Next: The key to the abyss – Revelation 20:1