Napoleon, Hitler and Saddam Hussein have something in common. So also do Mikhail Gorbachev, Benito Mussolini, Franklin Roosevelt and various and sundry popes. Some have labeled them—and countless other figures, well known and obscure—as the mysterious Beast described in the book of Revelation. Institutions such as the League of Nations, the United Nations, international communism—and even the United States government—have in the last century also been called the Beast.
Other commentators have argued that the book of Revelation is only to be understood as a metaphor for the battle between good and evil. To these commentators, the Beast is the personification of evil, not a historical figure or institution.
"But," some might ask, "aren't there all sorts of views and interpretations of Bible prophecy?" Of course there are! It seems that most would-be interpreters start with what they see on the world scene and then attempt to read it back into the Bible. This is why nearly all who commented on Bible prophecy in the 1950s and 1960s identified the Soviet Union's communist empire as the scarlet-colored Beast of Revelation. A few years ago it was Saddam Hussein. Today, many commentators identify the "New World Order" or the United Nations as the Beast. There seem to be just about as many interpretations as there are interpreters.
The Creator God does not intend Bible prophecy to be understood by an exercise in creative imagination. Neither is prophecy to be understood by looking at contemporary events and attempt ing to read them back into the Bible account. Rather, no prophecy of the Scriptures is to be of any private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20). If the Bible uses symbolic language, it contains in its text the keys to understanding what the symbols mean.
The elderly Apostle John stood upon the sandy shore of the Isle of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea. As he gazed out to sea, the scene before him seemed to change. Dark clouds lowered and the sea appeared to churn. As he stared transfixed, a strange creature rose up out of the water. This creature had the body of a leopard, the mouth of a lion and the feet of a bear. It thus embodied the main characteristics of the first three creatures Daniel had seen in his vision recorded in Daniel 7. The Beast that John saw also had seven heads and ten horns. We are told that "the dragon" gave this creature its power and authority. Finally, we are told that one of this creature's heads was wounded to death and was then healed. After the healing, the creature continued for 42 months (Revelation 13:1-5).
An almost identical scene is described in Daniel 7. In his vision, Daniel had seen four creatures—a lion, a bear, a four-headed leopard and a fourth terrible creature with ten horns—arise up out of a dark and stormy sea (Daniel 7:1-7). The creatures that Daniel saw are clearly identified as the succession of empires from Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, to Medo-Persia, to Alexander's Greek empire which split four ways after his death and finally to the Roman Empire. It is out of the fourth creature, symbolizing the Roman Empire, that the "ten horns" arose.
Notice the similarity of the two accounts. In each case there are seven heads. In Revelation 13 John saw one creature, not four distinct ones, but the characteristics were the same: seven heads and ten horns were described. In each account the prophets used the symbolism of a lion, a bear and a leopard. Why were there differences in the visions?
When Daniel saw his vision, it was virtually all future. Babylon, symbolized by a lion, was on the scene and the others were yet to come. When John wrote, more than 600 years later, Babylon, Persia and Greece had all passed into history. John focused not on the different heads to arise, but upon the details concerning the seventh head, the one that was extant in his day and whose history he recorded in advance. Where Daniel focused on four empires, John focused on one system derived from Babylon. He saw the various empires as merely different heads of the same creature. Daniel identified what he saw as beginning in his days and continuing on until the return of Christ when the saints would possess the kingdom (Daniel 7:18). The Roman Empire of John's day was simply a continuation of what had begun in Babylon.
Remember that the Bible interprets its own symbols. Daniel 7:23 makes plain that the four creatures (embodying seven heads) represent kingdoms. In Revelation 17:9-10, the seven heads of the Beast are identified as "seven mountains" or "seven kings." According to Daniel 7:24 and Revelation 17:12, horns symbolize kings or kingdoms. As for the dragon which is the source of power for this system, Revelation 12:9 tells us "the great dragon. [is] that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan."
What of the head "wounded to death"? Remember, of the seven-headed Beast described in Revelation 13, only the final seventh head, the Roman Empire, was extant in John's day. The fulfillment of the previous six heads had already passed into history by the time of John's writing. Did the Roman Empire receive a deadly wound, then later come back to life and continue "forty-two [prophetic] months"?
The date that has for centuries been taken as the line of demarcation between ancient and medieval history is 476AD. This date, the traditional "fall" of the Roman Empire, marks the murder of the last Roman emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, by the barbarians. In the next chapter we will examine this empire's subsequent revival.
But first, notice another detail described in both Daniel 7 and in Revelation 13. In each account we read of ten horns coming up out of the Beast's seventh head, the Roman Empire. John saw each of these horns as having a crown upon it (Revelation 13:1) and Daniel explained that they represented kings or kingdoms (Daniel 7:24).
Daniel also tells us that from among these ten horns came up a "little horn" which caused the first three to be "plucked out." To see what this means, we must look further at the history of the old Roman Empire.
The Story of the First Three "Horns"
In 286AD, the emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into East and West for administrative purposes. This was symbolized by the "two legs" described in Daniel 2. Serious trouble lay ahead, however, for the western "leg." By 400ad, the empire in the West was in its death throes. Following barbarian incursions on the frontiers, Rome itself was sacked and looted—for the first time in eight centuries—by Alaric and his Visigoths in 409ad.
As the Roman Empire in the West collapsed, three groups of barbarian invaders—the Vandals, the Heruli and the Ostrogoths—sought to establish themselves as the successors to the Roman emperors of the West. The emperor in the East officially recognized each as a continuation of legitimate Roman government in the West. Yet another emerging ruler in the West eventually obtained their overthrow and ouster.
This emerging ruler was the bishop of Rome. While the western emperors grew weaker, his power and stature increased. This involved not only a growing religious power over the professing Christian community, but civil and political power as well. The Vandals, the Herulii and the Ostrogoths particularly disturbed him. While they professed Christianity, it was a non-Trinitarian brand called Arianism. They were not "orthodox" and were therefore viewed as a threat to the religious unity of the empire.
The Vandals invaded North Africa in 429AD. After several years of fighting, they entered into a treaty in 435 whereby the Romans "recognized" them as the legitimate continuation of the empire in North Africa (Langer, p. 135). The Vandals sought to expand their power as successor to Rome. In 455 they even pillaged the city of Rome itself. They were so thorough that to this day the name "vandal" is attached to those who destroy others' property. But ultimately, the Vandals were uprooted. "In Africa the
Vandals were hated as Arians [by the Church of Rome] and they had to deal with serious Berber revolts, but their power was not broken until the 533-548 Vandalic Wars of [eastern emperor] Justinian" (Langer, p. 159).
In 476, about 20 years after the Vandals sacked Rome, the Herulii, under their leader Odoacer, deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last western Roman emperor. The eastern emperor, Zeno, "recognized" Odoacer as the legitimate continuation of Roman government in Italy. Odoacer was an Arian, however, and after an appeal by the Bishop of Rome, Zeno dispatched Theodoric, the leader of the Ostrogoths, to drive out the Herulii in 488. "The orthodox bishops of Italy, disliking Odoacer's Arianism, supported the Arian invader [Theodoric] as representing an almost orthodox emperor. With their help Theodoric broke Odoacer's sturdy resistance in five years of war, and persuaded him to a compromise peace [in 493]. He invited Odoacer and his son to dine with him in Ravenna, fed them generously, and slew them with his own hand" (The Story of Civilization, Will Durant, vol. 4, pp. 97-98).
Ostrogothic rule of Italy, though accepted as a means of getting rid of the Herulii, remained unpopular with the bishop of Rome and the Roman Catholic population. General Belisarius, who had been sent from Constantinople in 533AD with 500 transport ships and 92 warships to rid Africa of the Vandals, came to Italy in 536 to drive out the Ostrogoths. "The Ostrogothic forces were meager and divided; the people of Rome hailed Belisarius as a liberator, the clergy welcomed him as a Trinitarian; he entered Rome unopposed" (Durant, p. 109).
Thus the first three "horns" were plucked up at the behest of the bishop of Rome, the "little horn" of Daniel 7. The stage was being set for the true revival of the Roman Empire in the West. This revival in 554, like all the revivals that have occurred since, involved the bishop of Rome's blessing and his role as an intimate player in the various continuations of the empire of ancient Rome.
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