Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
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:The Woman with the Man-Child. Chap. 12 Revelation 12:1-61. a great wonder] Should be sign, as in the margin, both here and in Revelation 12:3.
a woman] Who is this? The two answers most commonly given are (1) the Virgin Mary, (2) the Church. Neither seems quite satisfactory. There can indeed be little doubt that the Son born of this woman is the Son of Mary: nor ought theological or ecclesiastical considerations to exclude the view that Mary is herself intended by the mother; the glory ascribed to her is no greater than that of a glorified saint (Daniel 12:3; St Matthew 13:43), and St John was not bound to suppress a truth for fear of the false inference Pius V. or Pius IX. might seek to draw from it. But it is not in harmony with the usage of this book for a human being, even a glorified saint, to be introduced in his personal character: if St John saw (see on Revelation 4:4, Revelation 5:5) himself, who was not yet glorified, sitting among the elders, it is plain that it is typical, not personal, glory or blessedness that this description indicates.
Who then, or what, is the typical or mystical Mother of Christ? Not the Christian Church, which in this book as elsewhere is represented as His wife: but the Jewish Church, the ideal Israel, “the daughter of Zion.” See especially Micah 4:10; Micah 5:3 : where it is her travail from which He is to be born Who is born in Bethlehem. This accounts for the only features that support the other view, the appearance in her glory of the Sun, Moon, and stars of Song of Solomon 6:10, and the mention of “the remnant of her seed” in Revelation 12:17.
It may, however, perhaps be true that the ideal mother of the Lord is half identified in St John’s mind, and intended to be so in his reader’s, with His human mother: she embodies the ideal conception, just as the ideal of the false enemy of goodness in Psalms 109 received embodiment in Judas, or as the king of Israel who was to come is called “David,” by Hosea and Ezekiel.
clothed with the sun &c.] There may be a reference to Song of Solomon 6:10, where however there is no mention of the stars. More certain is the reference, or at least similarity of imagery, to Genesis 37:9, where “the eleven stars,” i.e. signs of the zodiac, represent Jacob’s eleven sons, bowing down to Joseph, the twelfth. Here, the ideal Israel appears in the glory of all the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives, are hers, and of the Twelve Tribes none is wanting. The whole description, in fact, is interpreted in Romans 9:5.
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.2. and she … pained to be delivered] There is probably a reminiscence of Genesis 3:16, and perhaps of St John 16:21, as well as of Micah 4:10, to which the main reference is. Cf. also St Matthew 24:8, St Mark 13:1.
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.3. dragon] The word in classical Greek means simply “serpent,” though perhaps it was always specially applied to the larger or more formidable kinds. But in St John’s time the conception seems to have been familiar of a half-mythical kind of serpent, to which the name was appropriated: it had not gone so far as the mediæval type of “dragon,” with legs and wings, but the dragon was supposed to “stand” (see the next verse), hardly perhaps “on his rear,” as Milton imagines the Serpent of Eden to have done, before the curse of Genesis 3:14, but erect from the middle upwards; see Verg. Æn. II. 206–8. Whether this dragon bore visibly on him the primæval curse or no, there is an undoubted reference to the story of the Fall in this picture of the woman, the man, and the serpent. In Psalm 74:13-14 (14, 15); Job 26:13; Isaiah 27:1; Isaiah 51:9, we seem to find references to a “war in heaven,” either past or future, like that which follows here.
seven heads] Probably the vision avails itself of the imagery furnished by popular mythology: very likely Syria and Palestine had tales of seven-headed serpents, like the hydra of Lerna, or the cobras of modern Indian stories.
and ten horns] The only illustration of these is, that the beast of chaps. 13, 17 and of Daniel 7 has the like. But we must remember that the dragon is the archetype, not a copy, of the beast: and therefore the meaning here is probably more general: all unsanctified power is embodied in him (cf. St Luke 4:6), as all the power of holiness in the Lamb (chap. Revelation 5:6).
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.4. And his tail drew] The great serpent crawls along the vault of the sky, and the wrigglings of his tail remove the stars from their places. “Drew” is literally draweth.
stood] Perhaps more accurately standeth.
for to devour her child] Symbolises the enmity of the serpent against the seed of the woman, beginning with the intended treachery of Herod, and massacre of the Innocents; but including also the malice that pursued Him through life, the temptation, and at last the Cross.
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.5. a man child] Lit. a son, a male, the latter word being neuter.
who was to rule] Lit. who is to rule. This designation of the Son proves beyond question who He is, see Revelation 2:27 as proving, if there could be any doubt about it, how Psalm 2:9 is understood in this book.
to God, and to his throne] Cf. Revelation 3:21. In the vision, “He that sat on the throne” is still present, and no doubt St John saw the translation of the child to His side.
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.6. into the wilderness] Did she descend to earth? she had appeared in heaven before. See on Revelation 10:9.
where she hath a place] Most of the historical interpretations that have been advanced for this part of the vision proceed on the assumption that the Woman is the Christian Church. As interpretations, they are excluded if we admit that she is the ancient Israel: though applications and illustrations drawn from one may be appropriate to the other. On the view taken here, the doctrine of this chapter is analogous to that of Romans 11, though the point of view is not quite the same. St Paul distinguishes a double fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel—“the Election,” the believing minority, receive them now, and “all Israel shall be saved” at last. St John does not distinguish the two, but uses language that covers both. The Daughter of Zion is kept alive by God, both in the continued quasi-national life of the Jewish people, and in the number (be it large or small) of Christians of Jewish race; who are known to God, though for 1500 years at least they have, as a community, disappeared in the mass of their Gentile fellow-believers. It is hardly necessary to contradict the utterly unhistorical theory, that any now existing Christian nation can be identified with a portion of Israel. The theory is perhaps most absurd when applied to the English, whose ancestors are mentioned as a pagan tribe of north Germany, within 30 years, if not within three of the date of this vision. (Tac. Germ. 40.)
1260 days] See on Revelation 11:2-3. Here, as in the earlier of those verses, the time defined is that of the humiliation of Israel: perhaps we may say that in the second it is conceived as that of their temporary rejection.
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,The War in Heaven, Revelation 12:7-127. there was war in heaven] This must refer to an event subsequent to the Incarnation—not, therefore, to the “Fall of the Angels,” as readers of Paradise Lost are apt to assume. Milton may have been justified in using this description as illustrating or suggesting what may be supposed to have happened then: but we must not identify the two.
Michael] Daniel 10:13; Daniel 10:21; Daniel 12:1. The two latter passages seem to tell us that he is the special patron or guardian angel of the people of Israel: and it may be in that character that he is introduced here.
his angels] He is called “the archangel” in Judges 9 : the angels are “his,” as well as “angels of the Lord,” just as either a general or a king can talk of “his soldiers.”
fought] Apparently the right reading is to fight—the sense is “there was war in Heaven, so that Michael and his angels made war with the Dragon.” R. V. “going forth to war.”
And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
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.9. cast out] “Out” is not expressed—the sense is rather “cast down.”
that old serpent] Genesis 3:1. This is the only place in canonical Scripture (see, however, Wis 2:24) where we are told that the Tempter in Eden was the Devil: but it cannot be doubted that we are so told here.
the Devil and Satan] The Greek word from which the former name is derived is regularly used in the LXX. as the representative of the latter: though the two are not quite synonymous, the Hebrew name meaning “the Adversary,” and the Greek “the Slanderer” (e.g. the same word is used in a general sense in 1 Timothy 3:11). “Satan” has the article here, as always in the O. T., except in the Book of Job; it is still rather a designation than a proper name. In Enoch xl. 7 we have it used in the plural in a passage very like this: “The fourth voice I heard expelling the Satans, and prohibiting them from coming into the presence of the Lord of spirits, to prefer accusations against the inhabitants of the earth.” The voice is afterwards explained to be that of Phanuel, the angel of penitence and hope.
he was cast out into the earth] St Luke 10:18, St John 12:31 throw light on what must be meant—a breaking of the power of the Devil by that of the Incarnate Lord: but we cannot be quite sure that our Lord speaks of the same fall of Satan in both passages, or in either of the same that St John describes.
And I heard 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.10. a loud voice] See on Revelation 6:6 : and cf. Revelation 11:12 : the word “loud” here is literally “great” as there. Here, “our brethren” seems to imply, that it is a number of angels that speak.
salvation, and strength] Rather, the salvation and the might and the kingdom of.…”
power] Differs from the preceding word “strength” or “might” as implying that it is derivative—cf. 1 Corinthians 15:27-28.
the accuser] In Jewish tradition, Satan is spoken of under this title, the Greek word here used being Hebraical, and here, though of course written in Greek letters, it has the Hebraical, not the classical form. St Michael was called by the correlative term, “the Advocate.”
which accused] More literally accuseth, but the context shews that the meaning of the tense is to mark the act as habitual rather than as present. The “Prologue in Heaven” of the Book of Job, and Zechariah 3:1, of course illustrate the sense.
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.11. by the blood] More literally because of the blood … and because of the word.
they loved not their lives] St John 12:25, St Luke 14:26 are the closest parallels among the similar sayings of our Lord. Here, as in all of them, the word for “life” is that elsewhere rendered “soul”—not the same as that used for “life eternal” in St John, l.c.
unto the death] They carried the temper of not loving life (not only to the renunciation of life’s joys, but) even to death.
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.12. Therefore] Because of the coming of “the salvation and might and kingdom,” in which the victory of “our brethren” is included.
that dwell] Lit. that tabernacle.
Woe to the inhabiters of] We should read, Woe to the earth and the sea!—the sense is clear, though the construction is peculiar, which led to the alteration. When and in what sense the Devil’s power was, or will be, at once lessened and brought into more terrible neighbourhood to earth, we can hardly venture to say. Perhaps it is to be illustrated by texts like St John 9:39; John 15:22 : the Incarnation, as it broke the otherwise invincible power of sin, so made sin more deadly, if it remains in spite of Christ’s coming.
but a short time] viz. the time, apparently, between Christ’s first coming, which broke his strength, and His second, which will destroy his kingdom for ever. It seems unlikely that the “little season” of Revelation 20:3 is here referred to.
And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child.The Deliverance of the Woman, Revelation 12:13-1713. he persecuted the woman] The reference is probably in the first instance to the Roman persecution of the Jews, in and after the wars of Titus and Hadrian: both the bitterness with which those wars were conducted (Josephus probably exaggerates the clemency of Titus), and the savage fanaticism which provoked it, were the Dragon’s work. So also were the mediæval persecutions of the Jews by Christians: and so is the social or intellectual intolerance which is by no means extinct yet, and which is actually often bitterest against a Christian Jew who does not forget his nationality.
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.14. two wings … eagle] Should be “the two wings of the great eagle.” The word is, however, no doubt used generically. Some suppose “the great eagle” to symbolise the Roman empire, but that did not protect the Jewish Church, though to some extent it did the Christian.
her place] Revelation 12:6.
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.15, 16. We have not means for interpreting this description in detail. All we can say certainly is, that it describes the providential foiling of Satanic attempts at the destruction of Israel. Perhaps the most plausible suggestion of a definite meaning of the “flood” [better translated river] is that the Christians of Jerusalem, in their flight to “the mountains” (St Matthew 24:16 &c.) of Pella, were delivered by a miracle or special providence from the dangers of the passage of Jordan: if they fled immediately before the siege was formed by Titus, this was just before the Passover, when the river was in flood (Joshua 3:15). But of such an event we have no historical notice: and it is likely that the Christians fled when they had first “seen Jerusalem compassed with armies” (St Luke 21:20), in the unsuccessful assault of Cestius Gallus, three years before the fall of the city.
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.
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.17. the woman … the remnant of her seed] Genesis 3:15. The sense must be, that the Devil attempts to frustrate God’s counsels, not now by attacking the old Israel, but the new “Israel of God.” Titus, we are told, resolved to destroy the Temple, “in order that the religion of the Jews and Christians might be more completely abolished” (Sulp. Sev. ii. 30, supposed to embody a quotation from Tacitus). Hadrian, on the contrary, seeing that the Christians had separated their cause from that of the rebel Jews, extended to them a tolerance not merely contemptuous. But thenceforward the best and ablest emperors, from M. Aurelius to Diocletian, recognising the independent power of the Church, thought it necessary to persecute it. At last, Julian completely reversed the policy of Titus, seeking to discredit the Gospel by patronage to the Jews. This policy, apparently, will be carried out by Antichrist: but will be baffled when the Jews, whom he has restored to their land as unbelievers, are converted by the martyrdom and resurrection of the two prophets (see notes on the preceding chapter).
which keep the commandments] Revelation 14:12.
have the testimony] Revelation 6:9. The word “Christ” should be omitted.