The Two Signs In Heaven - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As we have remarked more than once, the eleventh chapter of the Book of Revelation reveals to us an outline of the general history of the church in this dispensation, and that with a view especially to her final struggle and ultimate victory and the condemnation of her enemies. It pictures the church in her actual condition as false church and show church and true church. It tells us in general of the calling and work of the church in the present dispensation in the picture of the two witnesses in sackcloth. It shows us the church in her battle against Antichrist, in her apparent defeat and shame, but also in her final glorification and victory.
The same chapter, so we noticed, also gave us a general, proleptical view of the seventh trumpet and its accomplishment. It did not reveal to us the detailed work and effect of that trumpet, but merely gave us a general glimpse of it. It showed us the seventh trumpet from the point of view of the great voices which shouted in heaven and which proclaimed that now the kingdom of the world had become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. Besides, the seventh trumpet was brought to our attention from the viewpoint of the elders, representatives of the church triumphant, who fell down on their faces and worshipped and thanked God Almighty. They thanked Him because He had revealed and assumed His great power. He revealed that power in the destruction of the enemies who came in wrath against Zion and against the Anointed of God. But He revealed that power also in the reward which He gave to His servants the prophets and to the saints and all those who feared His name, the small and the great. And, finally, we saw that seventh trumpet once more from the point of view of the earth. The inhabitants of the earth might see the temple in heaven opened and the ark of the covenant in the temple, - something that signified, as we showed, that God is about to proceed out of His temple into all creation as the Holy One, to make of all the world His temple and to realize His covenant and make His law of effect over the length and breadth of the earth. And this opening of the temple and issuing forth of the Holy One to make of all the world His temple was necessarily followed by judgments upon the wicked world, which loves not God and tramples under foot the blood of Christ.
We must remind you once more of the fact that in the future chapters you may expect individual pictures of the general facts revealed in Chapter 11. In the chapter we are about to discuss we find a revelation of the real spiritual agency which is back of the opposition and enmity against the church. In Chapter 11 we noticed that there was a bitter enmity against the church, an enmity finally revealed in Antichrist, who came out of the abyss. But the question arises: what is that power? Whence comes this bitter enmity? Where is its origin? And our chapter gives us to understand that the great battle of the world is after all not simply one between the church and the world, that it is not even one principally between Christ and Antichrist, but that in last instance it is one between God and the devil. And we cannot understand the situation unless we grasp and appreciate this fact. And since in the future the book will more fully reveal the power of opposition which rises against the church of God on earth, we must first have an insight into the spiritual powers that are back of this bitter force of opposition. This spiritual power behind the enmity against the church is pictured in the chapter before us and is introduced in the passage we are now discussing, which speaks of the two signs in heaven.
The Woman And The Dragon
John beholds, according to our text, two great wonders, or signs, in heaven. In the first verse of our text he mentions one of them, when he says: "And a great sign was seen in heaven." And in the third verse he makes mention of a second sign: "And there was seen another sign in heaven."
What John sees, then, is signs, or wonders. And by saying this he indicates at the same time that in the chapter before us we must not expect a literal description of something real, but symbolism, and that the passage must be explained accordingly, namely, in the symbolical sense of the word. If he had not told us, the contents of the chapter might have been sufficient indication that it must be explained in this sense. But now we know all the more certainly that here we have no literal description, but the presentation of some reality in symbolical language. A sign is something which has no significance and no reality in itself, but which is indicative of something else and which has meaning only as it stands connected with the reality which it symbolizes. And also in this connection I wish to call your attention to the fact that the Book of Revelation explains itself in regard to its symbolism. There is no one who makes the mistake of taking this chapter in the literal sense, so that the woman is a woman clothed with the real and literal sun and with the real moon under her feet. There is no one who interprets the dragon literally, as a dragon in heaven with seven heads and ten horns and a tail that draws a third part of the literal stars. Here we have symbolism, and every reader of the chapter knows that it is nothing else than symbolism.
The first wonder, or sign (we prefer the translation "sign" rather than "wonder", as also the Revised Version does), which John beholds in heaven is that of a woman. She is, on the one hand, of great and glorious appearance: for she is arrayed with the sun. In what way we must conceive of this concretely, so that we can form a picture of it in our minds, we know not. Nor does it matter, if we only remember that the sun in all its glory of light must serve to deck and adorn the woman, serve her as apparel. Under her feet she has the moon, and on her head she has a crown of twelve stars. In general we may say, therefore, that this woman as to her appearance is mighty and glorious, of so great importance that even the heavenly bodies of light must serve to add to her splendor. Even as a woman in beauty and significance is far above the apparel she wears, even as the clothing she wears must only serve to bring out the beauty of a woman, so this woman is far above the sun and moon and stars of heaven. And these must serve to bring out the beauty and significance of the woman. On the other hand, it must also be said that with all her glory she has not yet reached the purpose of her existence and is not perfectly happy and blessed. For she is described as being pregnant and in pain and travail of birth. She lives in the expectation of motherhood and evidently is about to be delivered. A woman, therefore, of high station in life, of great importance, exalted above the heavenly bodies of light, but a woman also at the same time in distress and in helpless condition, - such is the woman that is described by John.
The second sign which is seen in heaven forms a terrible contrast with this glorious, yet helpless, woman. It is a dragon. And a dragon in Scripture seems to indicate not one of God's own created animals in its natural appearance, but rather a monster. It is an animal departing considerably from the usual type in size and shape and number of limbs, an animal that is greatly deformed, as it exists only in the imagination of man. Such a monster is here pictured. Its main feature is that of a serpent. For in the ninth verse of this chapter the great dragon is called the old serpent. And therefore we do best to picture him as a great serpent. But it is a serpent of strange appearance. In the first place, it is of a red color, the color of blood and war and destruction. In the second place, it is a serpent of tremendous proportions, as is indicated, in the first place, by the fact that the text calls him a great dragon, but, in the second place, also becomes plain from the fact that with his tail he can draw a third part of the stars of heaven and cast them down to the earth. It is, therefore, a great and powerful and bloodthirsty monster in the main form of a serpent that is here pictured to us. And that it is a real monster of very unnatural appearance is plain from the fact that, in distinction from all other serpents, this one has seven heads and ten horns. The question as to the relative position of the seven heads and ten horns is certainly irrelevant. Attempts have been made to make a picture of this great dragon with his seven heads and ten horns, some placing two horns on three of the heads, others placing the horns all on one head, and still others preferring to have three of the horns between the fifth and the sixth heads of the dragon. But John tells us nothing about their relative position, and hence we have nothing to do with it. A still further peculiarity of the dragon is that on each of his heads he carries a diadem, a royal crown; and therefore he is also a dragon with royal power and authority. And, as has already been said, with one stroke of his tail he carries away the third part of the stars of heaven, and therefore reveals great power. It is a monstrous serpent of prodigious dimensions, of terrible power, with royal authority, of hideous appearance, and with a bloodthirsty and destructive nature.
Now if we ask the question: what is the identity of this woman and the identity of this dragon, and what are the things signified by these signs? it is perhaps advisable to start with the dragon.
In the first place, it may be said that from his very appearance we already infer that he signifies some tremendous and evil power. In the second place, to approach his identity more definitely, we recall that already in paradise we have met with a serpent, and that there the serpent was none other than the devil in person. But above all do we find little difficulty in finding the identity of this dragon for the simple reason that our chapter tells us in plain words that it is the devil. For in the ninth verse of this chapter we read: "And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world." It is therefore beyond all doubt that in this dragon we have a picture of the devil in person.
But the question still remains: why is he pictured in this manner in our text? What do the individual features of this great dragon stand for? Why is it that the sign of the devil is very appropriately this terrible dragon?
And then we call your attention, in the first place, to the fact that he is pictured as a monster, that is, as a being with an altogether unnatural and deformed appearance in nature. And such is the devil. The devil is indeed a monster. Not that God had made him a monster: God made of him a glorious and powerful creature. But with his great and glorious power he fell away from God, rose in rebellion against the Almighty, with that power still stands in opposition against the God who made him, and thus he made a caricature, a terrible monster of himself. The serpent may be the fittest symbol of the devil because of its subtlety and shrewdness. But the mere serpent does not picture the devil adequately. He must be symbolized as a monster serpent. God never made a serpent with seven heads and ten horns. The serpent as God made him has but one head and no horns at all. And thus it is with the devil. God never made a devil. The devil is self-made as devil, as an evil power. And since he deformed himself in his attempt to exalt himself, he has become a hideous monster. You understand, of course, that all this is under the power and providence of God. But nevertheless, God did not make the devil as devil. In the second place, let us consider that also the greatness of the dragon is an appropriate sign of the devil. God made of Satan a great creature among the angels. Perhaps we may say that he was the greatest of all the angels, great in power and glory. And this greatness the devil has not lost by his fall. On the contrary, he retained it. Only, that same greatness wherewith he was to glorify his Creator he now employs against Him as a real monster. In the third place, we must take into consideration the color of the dragon. He is red. And red is the color of blood, of war and destruction and murder, - again, a fit symbol of the devil, for he is the murderer from the beginning, according to Scripture.
In the fourth place, our attention is especially called to the seven crowned heads and the ten horns which he possesses. The numbers seven and ten, as we have explained repeatedly, are symbolical numbers. They do not refer to ten kingdoms, or ten kings, or to seven kings literally; but they denote the authority and power of this dragon, the devil. Seven, as well as ten, is a complete number. They therefore both indicate completeness. But as we have explained before, seven is a holy number in this respect, that it generally is used to denote the completion of the kingdom of God and its fulness, while ten is the number that denotes the measure of time or space or power as it is allotted and limited to any creature by God's decree. A divinely limited measure of something is indicated by the number ten. Further, it needs no proof that the crowned head is the symbol of royalty and of kingly power and authority. Seven crowned heads, therefore, would symbolically indicate the authority and royal power of the kingdom of God. And therefore, as to the appearance of this dragon we would draw the conclusion that the devil is king in the kingdom of God, for he possesses the seven crowned heads.
But we must be careful with the interpretation of this dragon. For remember: he is a deceiver. And therefore we must rather explain the ten horns first, before we draw our conclusion as to his real power. The horn is the symbol of might and strength and power in Scripture. And that this dragon has ten horns indicates, therefore, that the devil has just exactly as much power as God has allowed him, - no more and no less. It indicates that the power of the devil is limited by the sovereign decree of God Almighty and that the devil can do no more, no less, than that which God has decreed for him and which God wills him to do. But how must it then be explained that at the same time the devil seems to have the complete authority in the kingdom of God, as indicated in the seven crowned heads?
We would explain it simply in this way. The devil is the deceiver. And by these seven crowns you must not be deceived. God did not put them on his head. He put them on himself. They are not real crowns either. They are not made in heaven, whence all authority issues forth; but they are made in hell. And therefore they are no good; they are counterfeit. The truth is that the devil is a pretender, an impostor, an intruder, a usurper. He intrudes into the kingdom of God. He usurped the power of the kingdom, and he put on his own seven crowns and tries to give his kingdom the aspect of the kingdom of God by these seven crowns. But the reality of the situation is that he has ten horns. He has God-limited power, and with this God-limited power he will never be able to maintain his seven crowns and his royal appearance. On the contrary, after he has done all that was permitted him to do, God will take those crowns away, crush those seven heads, break the horns, and cast the miserable dragon into eternal hell.
What may be meant by his drawing of the stars of heaven with his tail?
This seems to be plain in itself. The stars in this connection must, of course, not be taken in the literal sense, no more than the entire portion. In this connection the inference is plain that they indicate the fellow angels of the devil. In Job the angels are called the morning-stars. And indeed this application is very appropriate for these spiritual inhabitants of the sphere of eternal light. And the devil himself has been such a morning-star, - perhaps, as we have said before, the greatest and most glorious among them all. And although the passage in Isaiah 14:12 cannot literally be applied to Satan, yet the language in which this metaphor against the king of Babylon is used, is such that the latter is evidently a type of the devil. And therefore also the devil may fittingly be called Lucifer, the day or morning-star. This morning-star, as we know, rebelled against God. Almighty. But he was not alone. He instigated a general rebellion in the heaven of heavens. He seduced others of his fellow angels to rise with him and exalt themselves against the Most High. And it is this feature that is pictured of the devil most probably in the fourth verse of this chapter. He dragged the third part, that is, in this sense, a great many, yet not a majority, of his fellow angels with him in his fall from heaven. And they together with him were cast down from their exalted place.
In conclusion, therefore, we may say that in this dragon we have a sign of the devil as the powerful, bloodthirsty murderer from the beginning, the impostor and intruder into God's kingdom, the deceiver, who tries to appear as the king of the world but whose power is limited by God Almighty and whose ultimate defeat is certain, the rebel, who in his rebellion succeeded to drag along with himself a host of his fellow angels, who sank with him into perdition.
Now who is represented by the woman in the chapter?
This question is not difficult to answer. Almost immediately we recognize in her the church of the living God in Christ Jesus. In the first place, this is true because we meet here with the same period of time which was mentioned in the preceding chapter in regard to the two witnesses. Those two witnesses, symbols of the church with her anointed servants, witnessed in the world, clothed in sackcloth, for a period of twelve hundred and sixty days. And thus we find of this woman, after she is delivered of her child, that she is in the wilderness for that same period of time, that is, twelve hundred sixty days. The inference is very strong, therefore, that this woman is essentially the same body as was symbolized in the two witnesses, that is, therefore, the church of God. But, in the second place, we find a still stronger indication of this truth in the fact that this woman brings forth the man child who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron. This last clause, in connection with the second Psalm and with Revelation 2:27, leaves no doubt that the man child is the Christ, the King of Zion. In Psalm 2:9 we read of this Christ: "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." And in Revelation 2:27 we read that the promise is given to him that overcometh that he shall rule all nations with a rod of iron; and then the addition is given concerning the Christ, "as I also have received of my Father." There is no question about it, therefore, that the man child brought forth by this woman is the Christ. But then there can be no question about it either that the woman is none other than the church of God, the woman, namely, as is conceived of in Genesis 3:15, to whom the great seed was promised. Christ is man. Although He is the Son of God, He is man and He is of man. He issues from humanity, but not from humanity as it is under the power of Satan, but rather from the people of God, from the church of the living God, from Israel. He is the Son of David. That this woman is the church of God is further suggested by her crown of twelve stars: for twelve is the number of the church in this dispensation, as we have observed before. And, finally, it is suggested by the very fact that she is a woman: for the church appears throughout Scripture as a woman, as the bride adorned for her husband. The woman, therefore, is the picture of the church.
But also here the question must be answered: how does that church appear in the words of our text?
And then we must call your attention to the fact that here we have evidently a picture of the church in the old dispensation. Before the woman is delivered and proceeds into the wilderness (that is, therefore, the woman as she appears as a sign in heaven), she represents the church of the old dispensation. This is plain from the fact that her man child is not yet born. The woman therefore represents the church before the birth of Christ, the church as she is essentially glorious and queen of the heavens, but as she still is in expectation of her man child who is to deliver her and at the same time become her Bridegroom.
Now you must not make the mistake of thinking that this woman represents the mother of Jesus, or that at least it represents merely Israel. That has often been inferred from the fact that she is already in pain to be delivered and that she expects her son momentarily. But the woman represents the church throughout the entire dispensation of the Old Testament. That entire church lived continually in the expectation that the Messiah would be born and would be born soon. Even Eve imagined that in Cain the promise was realized, and therefore she called him "acquired." Enoch prophesied of His coming for judgment. Abraham longed to see His day. Jacob foretold of His entrance into the world. Moses spoke of the coming of a great prophet. The prophets of Israel spoke of His birth, even indicating time and place. And Simeon could not die before he had seen the Hope of Israel. And the very expression in our text reminds us of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning Him: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulders," (Isaiah 9:6). And therefore, the entire church of the old dispensation, from paradise onward, presents the picture of this woman, travailing in pain and longing and expecting to bring forth the man child.
Their Attitude And Struggle
Now we must still consider the attitude of the dragon towards the woman and the conflict that ensues between the two. The text tells us that the woman stands in her glory, but also in her helplessness, and that the dragon stands before her. He is evidently watching her, and at the same time barring her way to escape. With intent watchfulness the dragon guards this woman and studies her every movement. And his purpose in doing so is most devilish indeed. It is not the woman as such who is his aim, but rather the child whom she is to bring forth. If only that woman did not expect to bring forth that man child, he would care little about her and about her glory. But that man child is evidently of extreme importance to him. And therefore he watches the woman, in order that as soon as the child sees the light of the world he may kill and devour him. But we read that the child is born and is caught up in heaven to God. The child, therefore, escapes him. The devil cannot reach his purpose. He fails. The old deceiver is deceived. And it may be expected that in his rage and fury he will now cast himself upon the woman, in order to devour her at all events. But the woman escapes by fleeing into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God and where she is nourished a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
The meaning of all this is not dark.
After all we have discussed, it is plain that the church of the old dispensation is laboring in pain to bring forth the Christ. It is also evident that that church of the old dispensation lives in continual expectation that the man child who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron shall be born. She has reason to expect this, for God Himself has promised the church this seed. In Genesis 3:15 we read the well-known words: "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." Such was the promise. And therefore, the church lived in expectation of this seed of the woman from that very moment forth.
But also the devil lived in that expectation. He was right there when that promise was made. Nay, still stronger, the promise was addressed to him. It was a promise given in the form of a challenge to the devil that he would suffer defeat. And therefore, also the devil expected the Messiah. I dare say even, in the face of the fact that the devil understood the situation far better than either Adam or Eve, understood also the significance of this seed of the woman better than our first parents, - he clearly had caught on to the significance of that word of the Almighty. And he knows that if the seed of the woman is born, and if that seed of the woman accomplishes his purpose, he, the devil, will be deprived of his power and of his royal diadems, and his heads will be crushed; and therefore he watches the church of the old dispensation closely. His aim is all the time to crush that seed of the woman, either by preventing that it ever be born or by devouring it as soon as it sees the light of the world.
But with all his watchfulness he fails. Christ is born and gains the victory and is taken to heaven in glory and leaves the devil behind in furious rage. True, the church still remains behind. She is in the wilderness, that is, practically excluded from outward glory and dominion. The devil still reigns in the world and still has his seven diadems. But also in this period of the new dispensation the church is safely kept and nourished in the place which she has prepared for her by God Almighty Himself.
Such is the meaning of the text. It simply reveals how the devil throughout the old dispensation exerts himself to kill the seed of the woman and to prevent the victory of Christ. It is not difficult to trace this struggle throughout the old dispensation. It is to be seen already in the murder of Abel. No doubt the devil made the same mistake at first as did Adam and Eve. They thought that the Christ would be born immediately. At first Eve imagined that her firstborn was the promised seed; and therefore she called him Cain, that is, "I have begotten a man of God." But as the two boys, Cain and Abel, grew up, they must all have realized that Cain was not the man, since he was godless. And the same difference between the two boys must also have been the cause that the hope and expectation was gradually referred from Cain to Abel. The devil must have made the mistake of thinking that Abel was the promised seed; and hence, through Cain he kills him. But Seth is born, and the seed of the woman in the spiritual sense multiplies in the line of Seth. The devil begins to realize that his problem is not so simple. And therefore, standing in front of the woman, he employs different methods. He tries to gain the victory by the process of amalgamation, and the sons of God marry the daughters of men, so that the whole world is well-nigh deprived of the spiritual seed of the woman. But again God interferes through the flood, and He saves the seed of the woman in the family of Noah.
And thus it continues all through the history of the old dispensation. At the building of the tower of Babel the devil tries to make his own stronghold against the seed of the woman and to establish his own kingdom. At the time of Abraham, he only is left, practically, of the seed of the woman. In Egypt the devil tries to extinguish the seed of the woman by oppressing Israel. In the desert he brings them to apostasy. In Canaan he sends enemies against them till they finally are led into captivity. And after the captivity he makes life hard for them. At the time of Antiochus Epiphanes the daily sacrifice is taken away, and the seed of the woman is killed on a large scale.
But in spite of it all, the Great Seed appears. Christ is born. And the angels loudly proclaim that the. glory is God's in the highest. Also Satan is now certain that He is the Christ, and therefore he directs all his efforts against Him. How this Christ will crush him and gain the victory is not plain to him, no more than it was to Israel of that time. And therefore he applies two different methods to devour this seed. First of all, he makes the attempt to subject Him spiritually, and he offers Him all the kingdoms of the world if only He will fall down and worship him, that is, Satan, knowing that if this promised seed will only do this, the devil will maintain his royal crowns and sovereignty. He tries this repeatedly in the life of Christ. But when he fails, he rouses the enemies of Christ against Him, so that they finally kill Him. I imagine that the devil was foolish enough, at least for some time, to hope that in His death he had killed the seed of the woman. But it was but for a short time. For that Seed, suffering on the cross, at the moment of His death cried out with a loud voice, "Father, into thy hands do I commend my spirit." That Seed rises from death and the grave and is taken to heaven, to sit at the right hand of God in everlasting glory, now working till the kingdom of the world shall lie at the feet of the Almighty. That the devil had not thought this is very evident. That victory lay in the way of suffering, exaltation through humiliation, life through death. And that he after all prepared his own defeat by killing this Seed of the woman, this he had not clearly before his mind. The deceiver is deceived! He has deceived himself. And he stays behind, as we hope to see in the future, filled with fury and rage against the woman who brought forth the man child.
Such is the meaning of the text. The battle of the world is a battle of the devil against God. Not between the world and the church in last instance, not even between Antichrist and Christ, is that battle. They all are agents. Christ is the anointed agent of God to fight, with His people, the battle against the devil. Antichrist, as we hope to see, is the agent of Satan, to fight his battles against God and His church.
What a tremendous idea is expressed here! We, as the covenant people, as being of God's party in the midst of the world, fight the battle of Jehovah against the old serpent, the devil. There is magic joy in the very idea that the Lord will use us as instruments in His hand, nay, as His living people, to fight against the old dragon. In the second place, let us also note that God Almighty has always been victorious in the past, and that the devil with all his attempts to prevent the birth of the Great Seed has simply effected his own defeat. So it will be in the future. God will always be victorious, of course. Not yet has the devil given up the attempt to gain dominion over the kingdom of God. But the voices in heaven have already sung of it, and the elders have acknowledged it, that the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.
Behold, He cometh! And His reward is with Him. Let us therefore be faithful and true to His name even unto the end.