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Introduction to Alethea In Heart Ministries

The Revelation of John - Chapter XII
Commentaries on the Entire Bible

By Rev. Henry Cowles
Professor of Church History and Prophesy at Oberlin College, and Main Editor of
The Oberlin Evangelist (responsible for giving us most of Finney's sermons).





A new subject comes before us; new scenes open and new symbols appear.—This chapter raises three preliminary questions:—(1.) Who are the three leading personages here:—the woman, her child, and the great red dragon?—(2.) Why are these scenes shown the prophet as located in heaven, since the transactions are located chiefly on earth?—(3.) What was the object sought in thus going back to matters of earlier history—the birth of Christ; the persecutions raised against him and his people, etc?

(1.) These personages are in my view representative characters, the woman representing the church: her child, the Messiah; and the great dragon, "the old serpent," Satan. That the church should be represented as a woman comes by imitation from the old Hebrew prophets, especially Isaiah. See chaps. 49: 20-23, and 54: 1-6, and 62: 4, 5, and 66: 7-12. In all these passages except the last named, the offspring of the woman are her converts, and especially Gentile Christians coming to her in thronging hosts, crowding her tent-room and bringing riches, glory, honor and joy to her happy household. But in Isa. 66: 7 we have this remarkable language which seems to have been in the mind of the revealing Spirit in this chapter: "Before her pain came she was delivered of a man-child."—It is pertinent to refer also to passages where the birth of the Messiah is definitely predicted, and of course, of some mother in the ancient Jewish church; e.g., Isa. 7: 14. "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel;"—also 9: 6: "Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of peace." Also Mic. 5: 2-4: "Out of Bethlehem shall he come forth unto me that is to be Ruler in Israel," etc. "Therefore shall he give them up until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth," etc.; "and he shall stand and feed" [like a shepherd] "in the strength of the Lord," etc. Both these sets of passages seem to have been before the mind of John, the former class giving the church representatively as a mother; the latter presenting her offspring, the one man-child, the promised Messiah. That this child in the chapter before us is the Messiah is shown plainly in v. 5;—was "to rule all nations with a rod of iron" a very obvious allusion to the prophecy, Psalms 2: 7-9; and "caught up" [after his resurrection] "unto God and to his throne;" exalted to supreme power there.—The "great dragon" is sharply defined and identified in vs. 9, 10, as we shall see.

(2.) Why are these scenes shown to the prophet in heaven, since for the most part they are transacted on the earth?—These prophetic visions seem to have brought heaven and earth very near together and to have shown their wonderfully intimate relations to each other. While most of them are located in heaven, the scenes are occasionally shifted to earth with striking facility (e. g., chap. 10: 1, 2, 4, 5, and 11: 1, 2, etc.). All these prophetic events originate in the great plan and purpose of God and therefore, in a vital sense, have their source in heaven. Hence when the object was to lead the prophet up to the fountain-head, the spring whence these streams of influence proceed, he must needs be taken up to heaven.—Finally, it was deemed important no doubt to show the prophet how deeply these matters pertaining to the earthly Zion take hold of the sympathies of all the holy around the infinite throne. Hence there was the utmost pertinence and fitness in thus laying the scenes of these symbols is heaven.

(3.) I have in part anticipated my third point so far forth as respects the object sought in locating these scenes in heaven. It remains to speak of the object sought in going back historically to the birth of the Messiah and its attendant circumstances. In my view the object was to show the persecuted saints of that age where the fiery persecutions they feared or suffered had their origin; to fix their eye on that "old serpent" who began his diabolic work in Eden, who tasked his utmost hellish art and power to crush the infant Jesus, and indeed to tempt the man Jesus, both first at the beginning of his public ministry, and last, near its close, in the scenes of Gethsemane and Calvary. It was well for them to be reminded that Jesus had been in this fight before them and had personally conquered! It was well for them to know where the great battle-field now lay, and that this was their time for valiant fight and steadfast endurance even if need be unto blood! One of the prime objects in this entire chapter is manifestly to put the devil in his true light as the chief persecutor, the arch-traitor and rebel against the throne of God—the chieftain who heads all the sin and all the war against God and goodness which appear in the universe. Let all Christians know their enemy; let them know his past history, his present designs, his determined antagonism to the Messiah and to his church and people; and his certain defeat and shameful fall in the end.—Such are the high and morally useful purposes sought in this chapter.

Accordingly we have here the woman and her peculiar condition (vs. 1, 2); the dragon and his followers (vs. 3, 4); the birth of the man-child, etc. (v. 5); the woman-mother protected (v. 6); the great battle in heaven and its immediate results (vs. 7, 8); the dragon identified and cast out (v. 9); the consequent joy and songs in heaven (vs. 10, 11); the, devil on earth persecuting the woman (vs. 12, 13); the fight prolonged (vs. 14-17).

1. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:

2. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

"A great wonder"—an object which excited great attention, perhaps great surprise—a personage of most striking appearance.—Her array and adorning seem to come from the Song of Solomon (6: 4, 10), "Looking forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun," etc. "The twelve stars" may have a tacit reference to the twelve tribes of the ancient Zion.—The human birth and incarnation of the Messiah seem to be presented thus mainly for the purpose of showing the great dragon in his true relations to Christ and to all Christ's work and people.

3. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.

"Dragon" [Greek, Drakon] is but another name for a great serpent. "Red" may signify his bloody spirit and purpose; his seven heads betoken extreme cunning; and his ten horns a very for midable power. The crowns or diadems upon his heads show him to be the Prince among the spirits of darkness and rebellion.

4. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

"His tail drew the third part," etc.; he led the first rebellion in the universe.—"The stars of heaven"—among and of those "morning stars" of whom it is said (Job 38: 7) that on the birth of our world they "sang together and shouted for joy." The usage of the word "star" for a distinguished personage appears elsewhere (Nam. 24: 17, and Isa. 14: 12).—Whether the relative number stated here—one-third part—gives us proximately the extent of that fearful rebellion in heaven, is perhaps too much for us to affirm. It may be so. It is however more clear that the writer speaks in derision of their obsequiousness and servility in meanly following the great head rebel—"his tail drew them!" Would it not have been incomparably more noble for them to have stood fast in their allegiance to heaven's glorious King than so meanly to suffer themselves to be drawn into most guilty rebellion by the dragon's tail!—The dragon deemed it a great point of strategy to seize the infant child as soon as born and crush him there in his weakness. But a higher and sharper mind than his saw through his plan and thwarted it.

5. And she brought forth a man-child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.

As already indicated this can be no other than the incarnate Messiah, born of a human mother, yet here thought of as born of the ancient Zion church, the product of her faith and prayer, the gift of God to his waiting church according to long standing promise and covenant.—The descriptive clause, "Rule all nations with a rod of iron," comes from Ps. 2: 9. It should be specially noted that the Greek verb here combines the two ideas, of ruling and of feeding as a shepherd. The aspect of iron power comes from what was specially peculiar and prominent in David who stands in that second psalm as a controlling type of Christ. David as king was distinguished for subduing the long standing and fearfully annoying enemies of Israel on every side. He was a man of blood. In certain aspects of his character his greater Son must be like him; and those aspects are necessarily rather prominent in this book of Revelation, since it treats mostly of the fearful judgments with which Jesus, the King of kings, will crush the great persecuting forces of that age. It must not be inferred that the rule of Christ over the nations which constitutes his promised reign in his gospel kingdom will be "with a rod of iron," for obviously Christ is thought of here as destroying his enemies by his agencies in providence—not as ruling in and over his church by his Spirit and his truth.—"Caught up to God and to his throne," is an admirable presentation in vision of God's protesting care of the infant Jesus; yet the history shows that this was not precisely the manner of that protection. The infant was made fully as safe against the dragon as if he had been taken up bodily and at once to the heavenly throne.

6. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

This fleeing into the wilderness for shelter looks back historically to Israel brought out of Egypt and sheltered in perfect safety in that wilderness of Arabia where no Egyptian army could possibly subsist, and of course could not follow them—on the margin of which indeed they found their grave in the waters of the Red Sea. Somewhat in the same way Hosea says (2: 14) "I will bring her into the wilderness and there will I speak to her heart"—making it a place for moral discipline, and hence for real salvation. But here the main idea is that of protection against the dragon. There may perhaps be a tacit allusion to the flight of Christians, shortly before the siege of Jerusalem, into the mountain region across the Jordan.—The duration of this period—twelve hundred and sixty days—comes evidently from Daniel where this period became historic, as the length of Zion's bitter trial and persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes. We have no occasion to inquire for precisely the same historic duration of either the church's protection or of her suffering under persecution. God kept her in that wilderness as long as the occasion demanded. It was a time which naturally suggested the similar period in the history of the Maccabees and their heroic countrymen.—To interpret these days to mean years is just as baseless in prophecy as it would be in history. See the Dissertation in the Appendix. This remark applies equally to v. 14 below.

7. And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

8. And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

It seems to be implied that when the man-child was caught up to heaven the great dragon carried the war thither, striking for the murder of the infant child there. It may possibly refer more definitely to the scenes which immediately followed the great revolt, since we can not suppose that after they had taken arms against God, they could be permitted to remain in heaven. Probably it is safest to say that we need not look for precise historical accuracy in such a symbolic representation. It may not be amiss to suggest that all which is said here of Satan's relation to place should be taken as symbolic and representative rather than literal and historic; for what can we know yet of the relation of spirit to place?—A fierce and desperate battle was fought over the new-born Messiah: holy angels and devilish angels were the opposing hosts, and the victory turned gloriously on Zion's side.—The allusion in v- 10 to "the accuser of our brethren" as "cast down" from heaven, which manifestly looks somewhat to the history of Job and Satan, seems to assume that the battle-ground is shifted from heaven to earth—the battle, I mean, over the saints of God—"Prevailed not" means, were conquered. And they could find no longer any place in heaven.

9. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

We may well note the pains taken to identify the "great dragon" by accumulating all his various names, somewhat as a criminal indictment against a villain who has various assumed names will carefully include them all with each its "alias" to introduce it. The "great dragon" was known as "the old serpent" in the record of the fall in Eden. He had a well earned "alias" in the name Diabolus—the devil—in the sense of "an accuser of the brethren" (v. 10), having played this part in early times against Job. Another "alias" he had honesty won for himself in the name "Satan"—a malicious hater, both of God and of all the good-angels or men. Such are his significant names, grouped together here to suggest to the reader the various points of his past history as given in the Bible. This dragon, the writer would say, is the same old enemy of God and man of whom you have heard so often—ever the same, though under names however many and various. You will see that his perpetual mission on earth is that of deception and lies, whereby he "deceiveth the whole world"—its Great Prince—"the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience." Let all the churches know him and know only to detest and resist him. He is hurled down from heaven to earth, one stage in that fearful fall midway from heaven to hell, giving assurance that the same power which cast him headlong from heaven will ere long plunge him from earth into the bottomless abyss—"his own place."

10. And I beard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.

11. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.

This grand defeat of Satan sends a thrill of joy through heaven. It is not only a fact but a prophecy—a fact which itself foretokens other victories of like sort, only more and more effective and decisive, tending more and more rapidly to the grand consummation—the utter crushing out of Satan and his hosts and the final deliverance of the earth from his dominion.—This "loud voice" seems to come from some representative of the glorified saints in heaven—perhaps from one of the twenty-four elders, for he says, "The accuser of our brethren." Certainly his interest and sympathy are thoroughly with the sons of Zion who are yet in the fight on the earth.—It seems to have been deemed one advantage gained over Satan that he is hurled down from heaven, where he had availed himself of his high position "to accuse the brethren before God day and night." He is now branded as a slanderer and made to fight thenceforward under his true colors.—The language in v. 11 seems to assume that the combatants in the great battle with Satan were redeemed saints, who fought the good fight of faith, and conquered through the blood of the Lamb and through staunch endurance and heroic witnessing for Christ and his gospel. Their example thus put must have been a sublime moral power upon the churches of Asia in their then pending conflict under the fear or the pressure of persecution.—Or may it be supposed that under the license admissible in symbolic vision, Michael and his angels are thought of as taking up this fight just as if they were themselves of the redeemed of earth, and so personating the saved of our race, fighting for them and as they must needs fight, in order to set forth the grand idea that the victory over Satan, whether in heaven or on earth, is evermore through the blood of Christ and through heroic endurance for his name? We may remember that when Jesus was about to close his earthly life by that most eventful death, in that prospective view which gave him the results of Gethsemane and Calvary, he said (Jn. 12: 31), "Now shall the Prince of this world be cast out." On an earlier occasion, when the seventy came in from their first mission, saying with joyful surprise, "Lord, even the devils are subject to us through thy name," he replied, "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven" (Luke 10: 18).

12. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.

"Woe to you, all ye of the earth and of the sea, for the great moral battle-field is transferred from heaven to earth! Satan goes down among you; the fight is to be on your soil; and you should know that he is fearfully exasperated, in great wrath. Having failed in the conflict above, he makes his last desperate stand on the earth, and he 'knows that his time is short!"'—But "short" is a relative term. To what other time does it here stand related? Is it a short time within which he may possibly destroy the infant Jesus? or a short time in which he may consume the young and feeble Christian church by the hot fires of persecution? or a short time even though reaching to his being bound with the great chain as in Rev. 20? Or may it be short on the dial of eternity though stretching to the end of this world? The second of these suppositions—a short time yet for his most hopeful fight against the new-born Christian church—seems to me most probable because most in harmony with the logic of the context and with the obvious sense of the word "short." It accounts for the fierceness of those terrible persecutions, and rings out a note of warning as well as consolation to all imperiled believers. Stand to your post staunchly, for the fight will be terrific, but it will be short!

13. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man-child.

When be saw himself cast out of heaven and frustrated in his purpose against the man-child, he turned his Satanic hate and power against the woman. It became an era of fierce persecution. Let all Christians know that the persecutions they fear or suffer come originally from the devil. It is only a part of his great antagonism against the Infinite God and his eternal Son. Such a view of it assures the Christian heart of victory at last, and would show the weakest saint who are his powerful allies and co-workers in the fight.

14. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.

15. And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.

16. And the earth helped the woman; and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.

17. And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

Here as in v. 6 the woman is conceived of in symbol as finding refuge in the wilderness. I see no occasion to tie down the significance of this symbol to the flight of the Christian Jews to the mountains across the Jordan for safety against the Roman arms. It is doubtful whether it has any special reference to that event. Its historical allusion is obviously to Israel in her Arabian wilderness, and its significance here is simply that the same God who of old helped his people to safety and to a thousand other blessings in a vast wilderness even for forty years, can and will .do a like thing in this age of hot and fearful persecution.—The "wings as of a great eagle" made her flight from a crawling serpent comparatively easy. As the old serpent found himself distanced so easily and so utterly by a winged woman, be pours out a flood like a river that (as the Greek has it) he might make drifting flood-wood of the woman. But God had means Whelping the woman even in this emergency. The earth kindly opened her mouth as if she could drink in rivers as readily as Satan could open his mouth and pour them forth. Of course these are points in the picture-scene of this vision, and not literal, historic facts. They had significance no doubt—culminating in the general doctrine that God never lacks the means to frustrate the devices of Satan—often, nay, usually, making the very wrath of devils and of men to praise himself. I think it would be quite superfluous for us to ask what special point in Satan's fight or strategy is denoted by the flood from his mouth, or what special mode of deliverance for his church is foreshadowed by the earth opening her mouth to drink in that flood. When the text gives us no light as to any specific application of a symbol, it is quite wise for us to rest in the general truth taught and give it as wide an application as we find convenient.—The duration here is the same as in v. 6—the conception coming historically from the same Daniel.

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