(Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version ((ESV)) unless otherwise noted. New International Version is abbreviated NIV.)
In the two previous articles, I have drawn certain conclusions that need to be applied to the last 6 verses of chapter 12. Those conclusions are as follows:
- I understand the woman of 12:1ff to represent the people of God. These people include Old Testament saints such as Abel and Noah as well as the faithful of the nation of Israel. It also includes the New Testament church. The chief representative of the people of God is Jesus Christ. The dragon, or devil, is the arch enemy of Christ (see verse 12:4b) as well as the enemy of the people of God.
- I understand references in the chapter give us reasons to assume that much of the action in chapter 12 takes place in the last days. First, there is reference in 12:6 and 12:14 to the time frame of 3 1/2 years. This time frame is used in various passages that refer to last days happenings—in Daniel as well as Revelation 11:2-3. Also, there is the “proleptic” announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God in 12:10. This announcement is in conjunction with the events of 12:7-9. Therefore, I have concluded that the “war” of 12:7-9 is not simply a symbolic description, but refers to a future event that will happen in historical time and will precede the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Certainly, the “war” can be understood to represent the defeat of Satan through Jesus’ work on the cross, but it also is a specific manifestation of that defeat that will take place.
Applying the second conclusion to the last 6 verses means that the events of 12:13-18 will take place in the last days that lead up to the Kingdom of God. To follow up on the first conclusion will be more difficult, especially when we come to verse 12:17.
It is almost amusing to notice the various names that John applies to the devil. Throughout 12:1-8, “dragon” is consistently applied. However, in 12:9, John provides a list of aliases: “serpent,” “devil,” “Satan,” “deceiver of the whole world.” In 12:10 one more name/title is given: “accuser of our brothers.” After this, we note that the name alternates: 12:13—“dragon”; 12:14—“serpent”; 12:15—“serpent”; 12:16—“dragon”; 12:17—“dragon.” In 12:9, the term “serpent” is modified to be the “ancient serpent.” This possibly is a reference to the serpent of Eden. The implication is that the same deceiver who was working in the Garden of Eden to waylay people has continued to be the enemy of God’s people and of their Messiah/Christ. So, in the last 6 verses of the chapter, the term “serpent” and “dragon” are used interchangeably to remind us that that the “ancient serpent” is still at work. In verse 12:13, the term “dragon” is used to connect the narrative to the first 6 verses.
In fact, verse 13 seems to take up where verse 6 left off. The dragon was focused on the child who was to be born of the woman (12:4b). However, the child defeated the dragon and took His place of triumph on the throne of God (12:5). The woman is still on earth, but she is said to be in the desert (12:6). However, we must note that verses 12:13-14 seem to recapitulate and expand the material of 12:6. In 12:6, the woman appears to be safe in the desert. Yet in 12:13 the dragon pursues her. This latter action of the dragon takes place after his ouster from heaven (12:9 and 12:12). It seems to me that this pursuit of 12:13 must be understood to take place before the flight into the desert of 12:6. That flight is repeated in 12:14 in more detail.
The identity of the woman is difficult. Although I have argued for a continuity between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church, I do see some distinction in these verses of chapter 12. The woman is described as the one “who had given birth to the male child” (see verses 12:1-2, 4b, 5). I think that the woman can be identified as “Israel, the representative of the people of God.” As I have discussed earlier, the people of God have a long history that stretches back to Abel and Seth.
In fact, Augustine argues that the pre-Flood names of the successive generations after Adam are not the names of the first-born sons. Rather they are the names of those who were calling on the name of the Lord. They were, in Augustine’s framework, the leaders of the “City of God.” (Augustine, 450-451)
I make a distinction between Israel and the church to the degree that verses 12:13-17 seem to make a distinction. This will be expanded in the discussion of 12:17. What this implies is that there continues into the church age an enmity between Satan and Israel. I believe Israel is apostate at this time. It has, as a nation, rejected Christ. Yet, it continues to be a hated people. The pogroms throughout history as well as the holocaust (“whole burnt offering”) by the Nazis are evidence of that hatred.
In response to the pursuit (or persecution) by the dragon, the woman is given “the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly into the wilderness…” The wording in this material signals specificity by the use of articles: “the two wings…” and “the great eagle…” The word “eagle” can also be translated “vulture” or “buzzard.” This is probably the correct rendering in Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37 (though some dispute this; see Carter, 19). In two other occurrences, the word refers to heavenly creatures. One of the four living creatures that are before the throne has a face like a “flying eagle” (Revelation 4:7). In 8:13 an eagle is flying overhead and warning of the three woes that are coming. It is possible that this is “the great eagle” of 12:14. Since the creature (or “animal”) of chapter 4 has six wings, “the two wings” would not seem to apply to it. However, it is possible that the specificity is simply referring to a species of eagle (such as we would say “the great horned owl”). These wings enable the woman to “fly” to safety in the desert. This word is properly translated “fly” and not to be confused with the word that is translated (properly) “flee” or “fled” in 12:6. This does not mean that the two verbs are not referring to the same act. It could be that the woman “fled” (verse 12:6) and was able to do so because she could “fly” (verse 12:14). What does this mean? We are not given any information. We simply are told she was given wings so she could fly. Most likely this is similar to the expression—and a reference to it—in Exodus 19:4: “…I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Thus, the “eagles’ wings” represented God’s miraculous interventions—in the death angel, the parting of the sea, the giving of water and manna, etc. So, it appears that the woman will experience the miraculous intervention of God that enables her to escape the dragon.
In fact the escape of the Exodus is paralleled by the fact that, not only is there escape from danger, but that God brought the people to Himself. In the case of Revelation 12:14, they are brought to a place in the desert “where she [the woman representing the people of God] is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.” There is a difference in translation in NIV and ESV that I think is significant. The phrase in question is, literally, “from the face of the serpent.” This—“from the face of”—is often, properly, rendered “from the presence of.” The problem is where to place this phrase in the sentence. ESV places it so that it modifies “fly”: “fly from the serpent into the wilderness…” NIV places it so that it modifies the predicate in the latter part of the sentence: “where she might be taken care of…out of the serpent’s reach.” This seems to be the proper placement of the phrase. The point is that the act of God’s care in the wilderness includes shielding the woman from the serpent.
The parallel with verse 12:6 is evident in the mention of the 3 1/2 year period. The period is designated as 1,260 days (42 30-day months) in 12:6. In 12:14 it is designated as “a time, and times, and half a time.” The “time” and “times” are years. Because this expression is generally parallel with other explicit designations of 42 months, it has been interpreted as “one year, and two years, and half a year” in Revelation and in Daniel. The fact that this time period is used signals the interpreter that a particular complex of last-day symbolism or ideas is being used. Some interpreters prefer to understand this signal as a symbol for a period of persecution. However, I believe that the specific time frame should be understood as a signal for that period we call the Tribulation period, especially the last half of that period. Thus, the woman—the people of God—are being described as under God’s care “out of the serpent’s reach” (NIV).
It occurs to me that it is possible that this protective care is a reference to a turning of Israel to Christ. It is one of the tenets of conservative last-day teaching that Israel will ultimately accept Christ as Messiah and Savior. This is mentioned in Romans 11:26-27. See also Zechariah 12:10-13:9. It is possible that the turning to Christ will begin in the Tribulation period and that the “flight” into the wilderness of 12:6 and 12:14 is a representation of that turning.
The dragon is now designated the “serpent.” Although the woman has a place of safety, the serpent attempts to overcome her with a river of water out of his mouth. As we encounter such descriptions again and again, we always recognize that we have been given a symbolic representation of reality. The description of this attack is that it is overwhelming. It is an all-out frontal assault on the woman in order to destroy her. The dragon sought to devour her child. Now the serpent/dragon/devil seeks to destroy the woman by a river. This could be a literal flood or it could be warfare or any number of other physical assaults. It may also be a spiritual attack—lies, propaganda, alternative religious ideas, and so forth. It may be a combination of some of these kinds of attacks. Remember that, although God rescued Israel from Egypt and brought her to Himself in the wilderness, Israel was not immune from attacks by enemies (see Exodus and Numbers).
The fantastic narrative continues. The earth helps the woman by swallowing up the river. We infer that this account refers to God’s intervention on behalf of the woman. Just as the woman’s son was rescued by translation to heaven, now the woman is saved from Satan’s threats.
The final verse of the chapter prepares us for what follows in chapter 13. We note first that the dragon is “furious” (ESV) or “enraged” (NIV) at the woman. So, considering that he was already “in great wrath” (verse 12:12), he is now doubly furious. But his strategy changes. Instead of pursuing the woman, now he focuses on making war on “the rest of her offspring.” Note that there has been no hint that the woman had other children besides the son of verse 12:5. These children are described as “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” We can infer from this that these are Christians. We can speculate further on what it means that they are her “offspring.” I think of two possibilities.
- These are children of the people of Israel. This would mean that they are Hebrew Christians.
- These are Christians, without reference to their nationality. They are described as children of the woman because they are the people of God, whom the woman represents.
I believe that the second possibility is more likely. The offspring are called the “rest of” the offspring. The question is, what group or individual do these contrast with. There is only one other offspring who is mentioned, and that is the male child of verse 12:5. So, we have two sets of offspring of the woman: one set consists of only one person—the male child of 12:5, who is obviously Jesus Christ; the other set consists of the “rest” of the woman’s offspring. These are identified, not by their birth, but by their faith and obedience. So, the implication seems to be that those who obey God’s commands and have the testimony of Jesus are the offspring of the woman, just as Christ is.
An alternative explanation is that “the rest of” refers to a group that contrasts with a large group of offspring who do not have faith and obedience. This means that the woman has three sets of offspring: set A consists of one person, Jesus Christ; set B consists of a group of people who do not have faith and obedience; set C consists of a group of people who do have faith and obedience. However, set B is not mentioned or implied throughout the passage. Moreover, the woman is presented as an idealization of the people of God. It seems to me to be a violation of that idealization to posit set B. It is more consistent with the context to understand that all those who have faith in Christ and are obedient are the offspring of the woman—in fact another materialization of the ideal people of God.
This creates a logical contradiction. How can the woman be the idealized people of God and “the rest of her offspring” also be the idealized people of God? Commentators often refer to the “fluid” imagery that is found in Revelation. I believe that this is an example of such fluidity. It creates a certain degree of tension within us as readers who take pride in our logic. However, we can set that aside and receive the message of the passage: Satan consistently opposes Christ and Christ’s people.
The clause that stands between chapters 17 and 18 is presented in a number of different ways because of the variations in the manuscripts. The following is a sampling (thanks to Bible Gateway web site):
King James Version: Verse 13:1a: And I stood upon the sand of the sea…
English Standard Version: Verse 12:17b: And he stood on the sand of the sea.
New International Version: Verse 13:1a: And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea.
New American Standard Bible: Verse 13:1a: And the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore.
New Revised Standard Version: Verse 12:18: Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore.
This is not of great moment. First of all, the chapter and verse to which the clause belongs is not at all of importance. Chapters and verse were added hundreds of years after the original manuscripts. The other issue is whether the subject of the verb “stand” is “I” or “he”. If it is “I,” then John is injected into the scene that begins chapter 13. If it is “he,” then the dragon is about to see his “masterpiece” come out of the sea. Whatever the case, this clause is a transition to chapter 13. The understanding that the dragon is the subject and not John seems to make more sense. It ties the beast directly to Satan. However, one must be cautious about drawing conclusions about textual problems on the basis of what makes “more sense.” This injects one’s own logic into a problem that really is about what was in the original manuscript. So, the question remains open, although most modern versions prefer that the subject of the verb is “he” (the dragon), and commentators (see Ladd, for example) believe that the manuscript evidence supports the modern versions.
Rist considers 12:13-16 to be “based on mythological elements.” He considers that the scene has shifted to earth. He notes that there are some similar mythologies in pagan sources to some of what is described in these verses—such as Isis escaping by means of wings and the Egyptian crocodile monster, which was named Set-Typhon, using a flood to attack Isis and the earth swallowing the water. However, he concludes that these possible sources do not give us any meaning to the symbols used in the passages. Rather, he believes the meaning is clear enough: the woman “now” represents the church, which is protected from Satanic persecution.
Rist understands the offspring of the woman to be those Christians who are fated to be martyrs. Rist considers the woman to be the church, which will be spared. Her “children, however, are to suffer a little while,” but eventually will “live in triumph forever.” Rist’s comments are consistent with the passage and also incorporate the logical gap within the passage: the woman is the church and escapes Satan, but her children are Christians—and therefore also the church—but they are persecuted. (Rist, 458-459)
Morris, oddly, turns back to verse 12:7 to comment that the war in heaven was an attempt to destroy the woman’s man-child. It is odd that he makes this comment at this juncture. At first I thought his conclusion was odd, but I have to admit that it is not necessarily an erroneous interpretation. If we consider the sequence of events in 12:1-9, they are as follows:
- The woman is with child.
- The dragon stands waiting to devour the child.
- The woman gives birth.
- Immediately the child is taken to the heavenly throne.
- The dragon begins a war in heaven.
- He is defeated and ejected from heaven.
If we consider that the war was in order to usurp the power and authority of the man-child (that power and authority that is represented by the throne), then Morris’ conclusion rings true. I have assumed that the translation to heaven ended the direct assault on the man-child (Christ), but that assault continued until the dragon was (shall be) cast from heaven.
Next, the dragon attacks the woman, who is able to escape by flying into the desert. Morris considers this to represent the persecution of the church, which is instigated by Satan. He strikes at the woman because she represents his “conqueror.”
The wings that are given to the woman, Morris believes, allude to Exodus 19:4, in which God reminds the people how He brought them out of Egypt on eagles’ wings. Morris understands an implied contrast in these verses between “the city” and the wilderness. Israel escaped from Egypt—which represents the evil opposition to God. So, in Revelation, the people of God live in the “great city” of 11:8, which “stands for opposition to God and to God’s people.” The church lives in the great city but they “do not belong to it.” Their true home is in the wilderness. Morris refers to the time period (3 1/2 years) as 42 months that “may contain an allusion to the forty-two stages in the wilderness wanderings, [Numbers 33:5ff].” I think the obvious reference is to Daniel.
Morris considers that the events of verse 12:15 might follow that of 12:14 or might simply be an example of God’s protection of the woman during her wilderness stay. I think the latter is more likely. He cites Swete, who believes the flood represents “the godly wrestling with a flood of evil.” Morris also sees a reference again to Egypt, since Israel came through the “flood” of the Red Sea.
As he considers 12:16, in which the earth swallows up the flood, Morris considers a couple of interpretations. One is to Exodus 15:12. This is part of the “Song of Moses,” and he is describing the fate of the Egyptian army. First the sea flowed over the soldiers, and then “the earth swallowed them.” Morris also refers to the idea that the “natural moral order” (the “earth”) is a help to the church. He rejects this, however, because he notes that, in Revelation, “the world and the church are set over against one another. Those outside the church do not help it but persecute it. The church’s help comes from God.”
Morris does not attempt to unravel the logical inconsistency in verse 12:17, in which the woman, who represents the church, has offspring who now seem to be the church. He refers to Genesis 3:15: “‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’” This verse has generally been understood as referring to Christ. However, when we consider Revelation 12, we see the “woman” and her “offspring” to be a complexity of symbols and those persons that are symbolized. Thus, the reference to Genesis 3:15 might be in order. Nevertheless, without using detailed interpretation, Morris simply notes that: “Satan is at war with all Christians.” (Morris, 163-165)
Metzger understands 12:13-17 as a symbolic representation of “Satan’s persistent hostility against the church…” The other children of the woman he defines as “Christians who obey God and bear testimony to Jesus.” The verses give a “retrospective tableau” of the beginning of persecution of Christians, for which the devil bears “primary responsibility for initiating…” He has already identified the woman as the “personification of the ideal community of God’s people, first in its Jewish form…then in its Christian form…” I consider this a reasonable explanation for the woman. It does (as I have noted) create a bit of logical contradiction when we consider the “rest of her offspring,” who, in turn, also represent Christians. Metzger does not deal with that contradiction. (Metzger, 74-75)
Ladd notes that 12:13 is a continuation of 12:6. The later verse simply adds that Satan pursues the woman in her flight into the wilderness. He does not believe that one should search for a “historical equivalent” to the woman’s rescue (by means of eagles’ wings) in verse 12:14. This is just “John’s way of assuring the church of their ultimate safety, even in the face of martyrdom.” He relates the 3 1/2 year time period to Daniel 7:25 as an indication that this narrative points to the “last terrible time of unparalleled persecution and martyrdom.” He asserts that “even in death God will preserve his people.” Ladd denies that there are any parallels in ancient literature or any “historical counterparts” to the narrative verses 12:15-16. These verses simply depict Satan’s vain efforts to destroy God’s people.
Verse 12:17 begins with the wrath of Satan against the woman: Ladd points out that Satan was already angry with the woman, but his renewed wrath is “a new turn in the narrative.” Satan has already vented his wrath on the first offspring of the woman—the Messiah, who “by his death (vs. 11) has provided the means for men to conquer the dragon…” Now Satan attacks the woman’s other offspring, “the empirical church on earth.” “John turns from the ideal to the actual—from the vision of the overthrow of Satan in heaven to the reality of his persecution of the saints on earth.” (He seems to ignore the fact that verses 12:13-17 are also earth-bound.) Ladd identifies the time of this persecution as “the time of great tribulation.” This “final persecution is reflected in the war on the rest of her offspring.” He—as do the other commentators—ignores the logical contradiction that I have dealt with.
Ladd notes that the King James Version includes “And I stood on the sand of the sea…” in verse 13:1, whereas the Revised Standard Version has “And he stood on the sand of the sea” in verse 12:17. He considers the latter to be based on “the better text.” He comments that the “he”—Satan—“takes his stand by the seashore that he may call forth from the deep the beast who will be his primary instrument in the last persecution.” (Ladd, 173-175)
Carter, Warren. The Roman Empire and the New Testament. An Essential Guide.
Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ of the
United States of America. New Revised Standard Version. 1989.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.
Lockman Foundation, The. New American Standard Bible. 1995.
Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code. Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Morris, Leon. The Revelation of St. John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Vol. 20. R. V. G. Tasker, Gen. Ed.
Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.
Rist, Martin. “The Revelation of St. John the Divine” Exegesis. The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. XII. Nolan B. Harmon, Ed.
New York: Abingdon Press, 1957.
Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publ., 2002