Rev. 13:18 – Here is wisdom: The one who has understanding must calculate the number of the beast, because it is the number of a man. His number is 666. (HCSB)
Here is wisdom
Few verses in all of scripture attract such attention and spur such debate as Rev. 13:18. John writes, “Here is wisdom: The one who has understanding must calculate the number of the beast, because it is the number of a man. His number is 666.” The Greek word for “calculate” is psephizo and means “to use pebbles in enumeration” – that is, to count.
John’s charge to use cautious deliberation has not prevented the wildest of speculations over the centuries. Here’s a short list of proposed Antichrists: Ronald Wilson Reagan (six letters in each of his names); the pope (pick one); Charlemagne (tried to rebuild the Roman Empire); Napolean (same reason); late 19th-early 20th century male witch Aleister Crowley (so evil that his nicknames were “the beast” and “666”); the Roman Emperor Nero (read on); 20th century contemporary world leaders Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini (grumpy bedeviler of the West); Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church (and self-proclaimed Messiah of the Second Advent); Louis Farrakhan (who called the Jewish faith a “gutter religion” and claimed to be the true Jesus); and Barney the Dinosaur (because he matches the apostle John’s description of a “fiery red dragon”).
While there are many proposed solutions to this riddle, two explanations would make good sense to the first-century audience receiving John’s message. The first is gematria, or the practice of transforming names into numbers. This is common in antiquity. According to the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, each letter has a corresponding number. The first 10 letters carry a value of one through 10. To use an English example, a=1, b=2, c=3, and so on. After the first 10 letters, the 11th letter is valued at 20, the 12th letter 30, and so on until 100. The 20th letter is valued at 200, and each subsequent letter gains an additional 100.
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.
Rev. 11:13 – At that moment a violent earthquake took place, a tenth of the city fell, and 7,000 people were killed in the earthquake. The survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. 14The second woe has passed. Take note: the third woe is coming quickly! (HCSB)
The survivors gave glory to the God of heaven
John writes that the “survivors” of the earthquake are “terrified” and give “glory to the God of heaven” (v. 13). His use of the word “survivors” implies the death of some – perhaps people, human institutions or world systems. Those still alive see the hand of God in these events and are shaken to the bone with fear. Fear of the Lord can be a good thing, starting us on a journey of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Or, it can move us further away from God, motivating us to hide from His presence (Rev. 6:15-17). Or, it can inspire awe, leading us to exclaim, “We have seen incredible things today” (Luke 5:26).
Commentators are divided as to whether the survivors’ fear in this passage drives them to repentance or merely elicits a response designed to appease an angry God. Elsewhere in Revelation, the wicked stubbornly refuse to turn to God despite the clear understanding that God is bringing His judgments to bear on the earth. After the sixth trumpet is sounded, “The rest of the people, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands to stop worshipping demons and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood … And they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immorality, or their thefts” (Rev. 9:20-21). As the fourth bowl judgment is poured out, the wicked who are burned by fire “blasphemed the name of the God who had the power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give God the glory” (Rev. 16:9). And as the fifth bowl judgment follows, plunging people into darkness, they “gnawed their tongues from pain and blasphemed the God of heaven … yet they did not repent of their actions” (Rev. 16:11).
Rev. 8:7 – The first [angel] blew his trumpet, and hail and fire, mixed with blood, were hurled to the earth. So a third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up (HCSB).
A third of the earth was burned up
The impact of the hail and fire mixed with blood is devastating. John writes that “a third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.” Whether this is to be taken literally or figuratively is a matter of intense debate among scholars. See the final section in this lesson for a comparison of four views.
“I have no quarrel, none at all, with those who look upon these things as being literally described,” writes W.A. Criswell. “But, these things could also be symbols, pictures of the judgments of God” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 174). Possible meanings of these symbols in Revelation 8, according to Criswell:
- Hail could be a sudden, sharp judgment of God (Isa. 28:2, 17).
- Fire could be the unsparing evidence of the wrath of God, mostly in the form of war (Deut. 32:22: Isa. 33:14).
- Blood could symbolize death in all its forms – physical, spiritual, moral.
- The earth could stand for the civilized world.
- The sea could depict the restless masses of humanity (Dan.7:2-3; Isa. 57:20).
- Trees could represent the pride of human greatness (Dan. 4:10, 20-22; Eze. 31:3-18).
- Grass is a term sometimes used to represent people in general (Isa. 40:6-7).
- Green grass could symbolize the finest of mankind.
- A star can be a pastor, a teacher, or a person of great authority.
- Rivers and fountains could stand for sources of life-giving water – the doctrine, salvation and hope that false teachers undermine (pp. 174-75).
There is, of course, the possibility that both figurative and literal meanings may be applied at various times in human history, or even at the same time. For example, there is no doubt that the judgments of God have fallen hard and fast like hail upon His people (Israel and Judah, for example) and upon the wicked (the Assyrians; see Isa. 37:36-38). This does not preclude God from using the real elements of His creation – hail, fire, blood, etc. – to bring judgment upon the wicked in the last days. Some would argue that this view is too fluid, to the point where nothing in Revelation really means anything. But we must keep in mind that this is apocalyptic writing intended not only for readers in the last days, but for first-century readers facing persecution, the end of formal Judaism, and the collapse of the once-great Roman Empire. Surely the Lord can speak to people of all ages through His word.
Now, what about the fractions John uses here – a third of the earth, a third of the trees, and all the green grass? As Matthew Henry notes in his unabridged commentary on the Bible, “The most severe calamities have their bounds and limits set by the great God.” Could it be that in sparing two-thirds of the earth and trees – whether literal or figurative – the Lord is providing yet one more opportunity for the wicked to repent? They will refuse, of course, as we see later. “And [despite the sixth trumpet judgment] they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immortality, or their thefts” (Rev. 9.21). “So they blasphemed the name of God who had the power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give Him glory” (Rev. 16:9b). “And they blasphemed God for the plague of hail because that plague was extremely severe” (Rev. 16:21b). This, however, is no reflection on God’s mercy but on the severe wickedness of the human heart. “The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick – who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
But how can “all the green grass” be burned up if the locusts are told later, in the fifth trumpet judgment, not to harm the grass of the earth? There are a few possible explanations. First, the phrase “green grass” could mean something more specific than the term “grass.” In the New Testament, there is one Greek word translated “grass.” It is chortos and can mean grass or hay. So the “green grass” could be a reference to meadows and hillsides similar to the grass on which the followers of Jesus sat when He fed the 5,000 (Mark 6:39), while the “grass” could refer to cultivated fields of hay, oats and barley. Another explanation comes from the fact that we don’t know the lapse in time between the first and fifth trumpet judgments. We do know that when grass is burned, it grows back. One other possible answer is that if this language is figurative, then the “green grass” symbolizes prominent human figures while the “grass” represents all humanity.
A final thought from the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times: “The figure of ‘a third’ used in each of the first four trumpets reveals that God’s judgments are partial and destructive, but not yet final” (p. 454).
Four major views of the first trumpet
How do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the first trumpet?
- Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the entire series of trumpet judgments is concerned with the Jewish War of 66-70 A.D., the “last days” of the Jewish commonwealth. The first four trumpet judgments depict several years of ravaging at the hands of the Romans prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. The plagues are reminiscent of those in Egypt at the birth of the Jewish nation. Some commentators insist that the trumpet judgments should not be seen occurring chronologically, but rather concurrently. The destruction of trees and green grass may be seen symbolically of people. The “green grass” could even describe the elect, who are not completely spared suffering and death in the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. Other interpreters, however, say the description of destroyed vegetation accurately depicts the Roman method of conquering Israel’s capital city and is captured by historian Josephus in his writings.
- Many historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – identify the first trumpet with the military conflicts between the Western Roman Empire and hordes of Goths and Vandals under Visigoth King Alaric, who sacked Rome in 410 A.D. Non-Christian historian Edward Gibbon described the invasion of the empire in biblical terms: “Blood and conflagration and the burning of trees and herbage marked their [Goths’] path.” Some suggest the “trees” and “grass” represent the church’s clergy and laity at this time. And the fraction “a third” could refer either to the Roman Empire, which was one-third of the known world, or one-third of the empire itself, the western division.
- Most futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – take the hail, fire, trees and green grass literally. They equate the events in this judgment to one of the 10 plagues on Egypt (Ex. 9:18-26). Hal Lindsey, who authored The Late, Great Planet Earth, believes all of the ecological catastrophes in this chapter are the result of nuclear weapons. Some, however, equate the trees to great leaders, and the grass to ordinary people.
- Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – see the trumpet judgments as calamities that occur repeatedly throughout the ages, not as singular events in John’s day or at the end of time. Further, they see these judgments as symbolic, not literal. William Hendriksen writes, “In all probability this first judgment indicates that throughout the period extending from the first to the second coming, our Lord, who now reigns in heaven, will afflict the persecutors of the Church with various disasters that will take place on earth” (quoted in Revelation: Four Views, edited by Steve Gregg, p. 151).
Next: The second trumpet (Rev. 8:8-9)