What’s all the fuss about the kings and the number of the beast in Revelation? Why all the postulations and funny math about seven kings, ten kings and six hundred threescore and six?
God’s prophets said that the Word of God is understandable. The gospels record that the common people “heard” Jesus “gladly.” Even so that has not stopped a whole host of folks from dissecting and dividing the Word without showing a moment’s thought for what is actually written on the printed page. And the parsing of Revelation into bite-sized pieces that are seriously hard to swallow is at the heart of many misunderstandings, and worse – false teachings.
Now I also know that sorting this one out will likely not affect my salvation, or at least it does not have to. I know too that not everyone reads what is actually placed in front of their eyes, and then some take things completely out of context – no matter what. I also know a few folks are quite literally hell bent on selling a product of their own making. So, the best advice I know is to avoid all of those types of things. Don’t take their advice or mine either, unless you find one, the other, or both rooted in God’s book.
With all of that stated; let’s do some of that simple math: The scriptures give a timeline in the vision of the two beasts of Revelation chapter 17. The vision states the authority of the first beast is over “every tribe, tongue, and nation.” Rome did that. In time they ruled all of Europe, The Near East and part of the Far East, the upper third of Africa and across the Baltic’s and past Constantinople. And I suspect that it is unlikely that Christ was giving John instructions here about nations and events one or two millennia or more in the future; and that the visions would be ignoring the repetitively stated purpose of showing things “that must shortly take place.” So it’s not talking about some greater empire that might be coming along much later. Rome was there.
So I must take the view that this must refer to the period of the establishment of the Roman Empire just prior to the first century and how Christians were to be affected as time played out through that period. The first beast then would be the government of Rome that is given power over “every tribe, tongue, and nation.” If we add one and one we get two. That fits cleanly into the narrative. Those pronouncements make plain simple sense and are in keeping with what we know in history and with the plain statements found in the text.
Now take note that the prophet warns of the fall of the power (the two beasts) in verse ten and elsewhere. Incidentally this is another indication that the city “Babylon” yet to be introduced, refers to the same location, and also signifies the city of Rome, later referred to as the “harlot” or “whore” and “Mystery Babylon.” Then in verse nine the text plainly states – “This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.” That makes the identity unmistakable. Whether we understand anything else here, the Roman Empire is the subject. Case closed.
So these signs were given part as a warning about what was coming right around the corner, and yet also offered comfort in the days ahead to the saints who would come under trials in the last part of the first century under Roman rule. The persecutor and persecutions would not last.
We are then told in chapter 17 verse ten, the beast’s seven heads are seven kings and then with ten horns representing ten kings. This is a sort of riddle but if we continue on the tact we have just set, we ought to be able to relate these numbers to identifiable rulers within the early Roman Empire. In chapter 17 we are told that the heads and horns of “Mystery Babylon” “…are also seven kings…” “…five are fallen, one is, and the other is not yet come.” So, seven rulers are at first indicated. “…And when he comes (the seventh) he must continue a short time. And the beast that was, and is not, is himself also of the eighth, and is of the seven and is going to perdition.” And “…I saw one of his heads as if it had been mortally wounded, and his deadly wound as healed. And all the world marveled and followed the beast.” So first it lists seven and a total of seventeen or eighteen kings, ten of whom “…have received no kingdom as yet” to fill up the list, with upheavals found in between.
Now the order of the Emperors of Rome would rightly start with Julius Caesar, as the first senate voted emperor, just exactly as history records. The count and list of seven kings would have Nero as number six. Galba would be number seven. Otho is number eighth. To add ten more would go through 9) Vitelius, 10) Vespasian, 11) Titus, 12) Domitian, 13) Nerva, 14) Trajan, 15) Hadrian, 16) Titus Antoninus Pius, 17) Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, 18) Aelius Verus and ending with his son at 19) Lucius Verus – both co-regent with Marcus Aurelius. Those three might legitimately be counted as one rule – Marcus was the one with the power. Then you would end up with Commodus as the eighteenth. The last ten have less significance to us today than do the first eight. And by any accounting with the first eight you are right at the upheaval in Rome and the start of its civil wars prior to Vespasian claiming the throne and Titus destroying Judea. Some want to lump Galba, Otho and Vitelius together to have Domitian as the seventh or eighth. That is pretty sticky stuff. In my view this is a little bit more hocus pocus than is necessary.
The point ought to be obvious: the manipulation of the signs and the lists attempts to add some emperors and time and then fit them into a particular thesis rather than having the actual signs simply fit the list. And that is accomplished with some questionable numbers and a dash of abracadabra. However, the natural interpretation lists the emperors exactly as they appear historically starting with Julius Caesar, with Nero as the sixth, Galba as the seventh, and Otho as the eighth, etc. etc. The list is: 1) Julius Caesar, 2) Octavius, 3) Tiberius, 4) Caligula, 5) Claudius, 6) Nero 7) Galba, 8) Otho, with the next ten (there are eleven listed aren’t there?), as listed above. Otho is listed as eighth purely as that is his place on the list (surely an odd idea). And the eighth was “of” the seventh and so forth. The disruption of the government and civil war following the death of Nero was not concluded until Vespasian dispatched the last of the three and stopped the civil war (Galba, seventh, Otho the eighth, and that would make Vitelius the ninth). Five are fallen – would indicate that either Nero and Claudius were already gone, and that you were in the time of the three emperors prior to Vespasian. The sign may be noting that it is Galba in his short reign as the current emperor when the book of Revelation was published about, in the middle of the instability in Rome, and during the start of the siege of Judea. You may disagree with the theory and the few details listed here, but it all puts the timeline at the period just prior to the destruction of both Rome and Jerusalem. And you may find difficulty with those numbers; and I might suggest that you ought to look those things up in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Someone once said, “Every important book has an index.”
But back to it. If you keep strictly with this reading, you do not have to massage, configure or squeeze anything; and you will end with Galba and Otho in trouble and both headed to destruction. That leaves Vitelius at nine. with Vespasian to start the list of ten. With the future emperors completing the list of the ten “Kings” of the vision. The “wounded head” would refer to the status of the imperial office under Galba, Otho and Vitelius, and their destructive path prior to the reign of Vespasian. Galba was emperor for seven months and six days. Otho was officially emperor for just three days when he was murdered, with the rest of the time went to Vitelius until he was killed by Vespasian (eight months, twenty seven days into his reign). So this listing begins with the first Roman Emperor and ends at the destruction of Rome, and more importantly to the student of scriptures, the end of Jerusalem and Israel.
Preferring Vespasian as the eighth “king” by starting the count from Octavius rather than with Julius Caesar will for all practical purposes land at the same point – only with Vespasian’s son Titus: the leader of the legions and destroyer of Jerusalem and Judea. By using either version of this very natural accounting, the time of the first eight emperors extends no further than the reign of Vespasian, which lands things at the end of the Jewish state. It all points one way.
There is nothing mystical about it; and there is no need to stretch things to the end of the first century. And with either start point you get eight plus ten or at most eleven names. One thing is absolutely certain regardless of any theory particulars, no matter which of the rulers of Rome you might begin with; if you ascribe to this very natural and general interpretation, you end up peering through the window directly into the civil wars of Rome, its subsequent burning, to the destruction of the Jewish state, its sacking and the burning of Jerusalem. And it includes the destruction of the Temple and its records, all of which are standing right in front of your eyes. These were the seminal moments in Jewish and Christian history, and they occurred within two years of one another. then the prophesy project less information but notes ten more would be coming much like the last eight.
In conclusion, let me offer this point. This was directed to the Christians in the end of the first century and those who lived in the first half of the second century. It is not about us. And in case you may be unaware, Both Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius were involved in persecutions in what is now France; and it is Trajan who opened the Coliseum. Hadrian also carried out the second destruction of Jerusalem.
So, at first: if you can see your way past the fabulous futurist theories, this is the only detailed timeline that would mean anything to those of that time and that fits cleanly in the text. As I have suggested, the only reason I can find for the other lists and theories is the promoters of such things do not believe the stated purpose, which the book of Revelation is bracketed with — that “these things must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1, 19, 4:1, 21:1, 12, 20). Seventy to one hundred years is roughly the lifespan of three to four generations (a generation defined as the span of grandfather to father to son). This offers a very limited time ending within the mid second century. Second, the rest of these theories follow signs and fulfillment that no one sees or can ever possibly see or nail down to specifics. Some say the fulfillment is gathering steam just around the corner right now, or more often, that they are well off even from our own days. Never mind that earlier prognosticators listed notables such as Lord Wellington, Napoleon, Hitler and numerous others as one or more of the kings. That stuff serves to confuse and lend to the signs meaning nothing to anyone. With such far off and gone things and persons being predicted, the first century audience would surely have scratched their heads until their collective hair had fallen out trying to sort out how those messages could possibly pertain to them in any sensible way. Yet I expect that they were smarter than that and less cluttered mentally than we seem. The scriptures also clearly tell us that the prophecies of God either come to pass or they do not – that’s the test. So you can tell the difference between true prophecies and anything else with that simple test. One type comes from God, the other from mankind. That must mean that the end product must be visible within the stated frame. What a marvelously simple concept.