Henry Alford’s commentary on Revelation 12
by Henry Alford, DD.
Deighton, Bell & Co., Cambridge. 1872.
The Vision of the Woman and the great red Dragon.
On the nature of this vision, as introductory of the whole imagery of the latter part of the Apocalypse, I have already remarked at ch. xi. It is only needful now to add, that the principal details of the present section are rather descriptive than strictly prophetical: relating, just as in the prophets the descriptions of Israel and Judah, to things passed and passing, and serving for the purpose of full identification and of giving completeness to the whole vision. And a great (important in its meaning, as well as vast in its appearance) sign (one of those appearances by which God signified to John the revelations of this book, ch. i. 1) was seen in heaven (heaven here is manifestly not only the show-place of the visions as seen by the Seer, but has a substantial place in the vision: for below, ver. 7 ff., we have the heaven contrasted with the earth, and the dragon cast out of heaven into the earth. See more there), a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon beneath her feet (see Cant. vi. 10, which seems to be borne in mind), and on her head a crown of twelve stars (the whole symbolism points to the Church, the bride of God: and of course, from the circumstances afterwards related, the Old Test. church, at least at this beginning of the vision. That the blessed Virgin cannot be intended, is plain from the subsequent details, and was recognized by the early expositors. The crown of twelve stars represents the Patriarchs. Victorinus interprets the woman as the ancient church, and the twelve stars as above), and [she is] (or being] with child [and] crieth out in pangs and tormented to bring forth. And another sign was seen in heaven, and behold, a great red dragon (interpreted below, ver. 9, to be the devil, the ancient serpent: see also vv. 13, 15. He is red perhaps for the combined reasons, of the wasting properties of fire, and the redness of blood: see John viii. 44), having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his heads seven diadems (the Dragon being the devil, these symbolic features must be interpreted of the assuming by him of some of those details in the form of the beast in ch. xiii. 1 ff., to whom afterwards he gives his power and his throne: in other words, as indicating that he lays wait for the woman’s offspring in the form of that antichristian power which is afterwards represented by the beast. At the same time, the seven crowned heads may possess an appropriateness of their own, belonging as they do to the dragon alone [the beast has the crowns on his horns, ch. xiii. 1]. They may represent, as he is Prince of this world, universality of earthly dominion. The ten horns belong to the fourth beast of Daniel, vii. 7, 20). And his tail draggeth down the third part of the stars of the heaven, and cast them to the earth (so the little horn in Dan. viii. 10, “cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them.” The allusion here may be the devil having persuaded and drawn down to perdition the rebel angels. The magnitude and fury of the dragon are graphically given by the fact of its tail, in its lashing backwards and forwards in fury, sweeping down the stars of heaven). And the dragon standeth (not “stood.” Pliny describes the dragon as not prone to gliding like a serpent, but walking lofty and erect) before the woman which is about to bear, that when she has borne he may devour her child (this was what the devil instigated Herod the Great to do, who was the dependant of the Roman Empire. But doubtless the reference is wider than this: even to the whole course of hostility against the Lord during His humiliation: see below). And she bore a male son, who shall rule (literally, shepherd, i. e. order and guide) all the nations with a rod of iron (these words, cited verbatim from the Septuagint version of the Messianic Psalm ii, leave no possibility of doubt, who is here intended. The man-child is the Lord Jesus Christ, and none other. And this result is a most important one for the fixity of reference of the whole prophecy. It forms one of those landmarks by which the legitimacy of various interpretations may be tested; and of which we may say, notwithstanding the contradiction sure to be given to the saying that every interpretation which oversteps their measure is thereby convicted of error. Again, the exigencies of this passage require that the birth should be understood literally and historically, of that Birth of which all Christians know. And be it observed, that this rule of interpretation is no confident assertion of mine, as has been represented, but a result from the identifying use of words of the prophetic Scripture, spoken of Him, who will not suffer His honour to be given to another): and her child was caught up to God and to His throne (i, e. after a conflict with the Prince of this world, who came and tried Him but found nothing in Him, the Son of the woman was taken up to heaven and sat on the right hand of God. Words can hardly be plainer than these. It surely is but needful to set against them, thus understood, the interpretation which would regard them as fulfilled by the “mighty issue of the consummated birth of a son of the church, a baptized emperor, to political supremacy in the Roman empire,” “united with the solemn public profession of the divinity of the Son of man.” Elliott, iii. 24). And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath there (so literally) a place prepared from (so literally: the source of the preparation being His command) God, that they (the subject to the verb is left indefinite. In ver. 14 below, it is simply passive, where she is nourished) may nourish her there for a thousand two hundred and sixty days (the whole of this verse is anticipatory: the same incident being repeated with its details and in its own place in the order of the narrative below, vv. 13 ff. See there the comment and interpretation. The fact of its being here inserted by anticipation is very instructive as to that which now next follows, as not being consecutive in time after the flight of the woman, but occurring before it, and in fact referred to now in the prophecy as leading to that pursuit of the woman by the dragon, which, as matter of sequence, led to it). 7 ff.] And there was war in heaven (we now enter upon a mysterious series of events in the world of spirits, with regard to which merely fragmentary hints are given us in the Scriptures. In the Old Test. we find the adversary Satan in heaven. In Job i., ii., he appears before God as the Tempter of His saints: in Zech. iii. we have him accusing Joshua the High-priest in God’s presence. Again our Lord in Luke x. 18 exclaims, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven,” where see note. Compare also John xii. 31. So that this casting down of Satan from the office of accuser in heaven was evidently connected with the great justifying work of redemption. His voice is heard before God no more: the day of acceptance in Christ Jesus has dawned. And his angels, those rebel spirits whom he led away, are cast down with him, into the earth, where now the conflict is waging during the short time which shall elapse between the Ascension and the second Advent, when he shall be bound. All this harmonizes together: and though we know no more of the matter, we have at least this sign that our knowledge, as far as it goes, is sound, –that the few hints given us do not, when thus interpreted, contradict one another, but agree as portions of one whole. The war here spoken of appears in some of its features in the book of Daniel, ch. x. 13, 21, xii. 1. In Jude 9 also we find Michael the adversary of the devil in the matter of the saints of God): Michael (“one of the chief princes,” Dan. x. 13 : “your prince,” i. e. of the Jewish nation, ib. ver. 21: “the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people,” ib. xii. 1: “the archangel,” Jude 9: not to be identified with Christ, any more than any other of the great angels in this book. Such identification here would confuse hopelessly the actors in this heavenly scene. Satan’s being cast out of heaven to the earth is the result not of his contest with the Lord Himself, of which it is only an incident leading to a new phase, but of the appointed conflict with his faithful fellow-angels led on by the archangel Michael. The expression, his angels, in both cases requires nearer correspondence in the two chiefs than is found between Satan and the Son of God) and his angels to war with the dragon, and the dragon warred and his angels, and [they] (or, he: the reading is doubtful) prevailed not, nor was even (this brings in a climax) their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast down, the ancient serpent (in allusion to the history in Gen. iii. Remember also that St. John had related the saying of our Lord, that the devil was “a murderer from the beginning,” the cognate term in the original to ancient here), he who is called the devil and Satan, he who deceiveth the whole [inhabited] world, was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast with him (I would appeal, in passing, to the solemnity of the terms here used, and the particularity of the designation, and ask whether it is possible to understand this of the mere casting down of paganism from the throne of the Roman empire? whether the words themselves do not vindicate their plain literal sense, as further illustrated by the song of rejoicing which follows?). And I heard a great voice in heaven (proceeding apparently from the elders, representing the church [compare our brethren below]: but it is left uncertain) saying, Now is come the salvation and the might and the kingdom of our God and the power of His Christ (i.e. the realization of all these: the salvation of our God being, as so often, that salvation which belongs to God as its Author: see Luke iii. 6): because the accuser of our brethren is cast down, who accuseth (the present participle implies the usual habit, though that his office was now at an end) them before our God by day and by night. And they conquered him on account of the blood of the Lamb (i. e. by virtue of that blood having been shed: not as in A. V., “by the blood,” which is an ungrammatical rendering. The meaning is far more significant; their victory over Satan was grounded in, was a consequence of, His having shed his precious blood: without that, the adversary’s charges against them would have been unanswerable. It is remarkable, that the rabbinical books give a tradition that Satan accuses men all the days of the year, except on the Day of Atonement) and on account of the word of their testimony (the strict sense of the preposition must again be kept. It is because they have given a faithful testimony, even unto death, that they are victorious: this is their part, their appropriation of and standing in the virtue of that blood of the Lamb. Without both these, victory would not have been theirs: both together form its ground): and they loved not their life unto death (i. e. they carried their not-love of their life even unto death). For this cause (viz., because the dragon is cast down: as is shewn by the contrast below) rejoice, ye heavens and they that dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil is come down to you (the earth and sea) having great wrath (the enmity, which was manifested as his natural state towards Christ, ver. 4, being now kindled into wrath), because he knoweth that he hath but a short season (i. e. because the Lord cometh quickly, and then the period of his active hostility against the church and the race whom Christ has redeemed will be at an end: he will be bound and cast into the pit. Until then, he is carrying it on, in ways which the prophecy goes on to detail). And when the dragon saw that he was cast down to the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the male child (the narrative at ver. 6 is again taken up and given more in detail. There, the reason of the woman’s flight is matter of inference: here, it is plainly expressed, and the manner of the flight also is related. And there were given (in the usual apocalyptic sense, i.e. granted by God for His purposes) to the woman [the] two wings of the great eagle (the figure is taken from 0ld Test. expressions used by God in reference to the flight of Israel from Egypt. The most remarkable of these is in Exod. xix. 4, “I bare you on eagle’s wings, and brought you unto myself.” So also Deuteronomy in the reff. But the articles are not to be taken as identifying the eagle with the figure used in those places, which would be most unnatural: much less must they be supposed to identify this eagle with that in ch. viii. 13, with which it has no connexion. The articles are simply generic. With these Old Test. references before us, we can hardly be justified in pressing the figure of the eagle’s wings to an interpretation in the fulfilment of the prophecy, or in making it mean that the flight took place under the protection of the Roman eagles, as some have done), that she might fly into the wilderness (the flight of Israel out of Egypt is still borne in mind) to her place (prepared of God, ver. 6: so also in Exod. xxiii. 20), where she is nourished (as God nourished Israel with manna in the wilderness, see Deut. viii. 3, 16) a time and times and half a time (i.e. 3½ years; 42 months, ch. xi. 2; 1260 days, ver. 6 and ch. xi. 3) from (importing “safe from,” “far from,” “hidden from”) the face of the dragon. And the serpent cast out of his mouth after the woman water as a river, that he might make her to be borne away by the river. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth and swallowed down the river which the dragon cast out of his mouth (in passing to the interpretation, we cannot help being struck with the continued analogy between this prophecy and the history of the Exodus. There we have the flight in to the wilderness, there the feeding in the wilderness, as already remarked: there again the forty-two stations, corresponding to the forty-two months of the three years and half of this prophecy: there too the miraculous passage of the Red Sea, not indeed in strict correspondence with this last feature, but at least suggestive of it. These analogies themselves suggest caution in the application of the words of the prophecy; and in this direction. The church in the wilderness of old was not, as some expositors would represent this woman, the pure church of God: His veritable servants were hidden in the midst of that church, as much as that church itself was withdrawn from the enmity of Pharaoh. And, it is to be noted, it was that very church herself which afterwards, when seated at Jerusalem, forsook her Lord and Husband, and committed adultery with the kings of the earth, and became drunk with the blood of the saints. It would seem then that we must not understand the woman of the invisible spiritual church of Christ, nor her flight into the wilderness of the withdrawal of God’s true servants from the eyes of the world. They indeed have been just as much withdrawn from the eyes of the world at all times, and will continue so till the great manifestation of the sons of God. I own that, considering the analogies and the language used, I am much more disposed to interpret the persecution of the woman, by the dragon of the various persecutions by Jews which followed the Ascension, and her flight into the wilderness of the gradual withdrawal of the church and her agency from Jerusalem and Judea, finally consummated by the flight to the mountains on the approaching siege, commanded by our Lord Himself. And then the river which the dragon sent out of his mouth after the woman might be variously understood,–of the Roman armies which threatened to sweep away Christianity in the wreck of the Jewish nation,–or of the persecutions which followed the church into her retreats, but eventually became absorbed by the civil power turning Christian,–or of the Jewish nation itself, banded together against Christianity wherever it appeared, but eventually itself becoming powerless against it by its dispersion and ruin,–or again, of the influx of heretical opinions from the Pagan philosophies which tended to swamp the true faith. I confess that not one of these seems to me satisfactorily to answer the conditions: nor do we gain any thing by their combination. But any thing within reasonable regard for the analogies and symbolism of the text seems better than the now too commonly received historical interpretation, with its wild fancies and arbitrary assignment of words and figures. As to the time indicated by the 1260 days or 3½ years, the interpretations given have not been convincing, nor even specious. We may observe thus much in this place: that if we regard this prophecy as including long historic periods, we are driven to one of two resources with regard to these numbers: either we must adopt the year-day theory (that which reckons a day for a year, and consequently a month for thirty years,–and should reckon a year for 360 years), or we must believe the numbers to have merely a symbolical and mystical, not a chronological force. If (and this second alternative is best stated in an inverse form) we regard the periods mentioned as to be literally accepted, then the prophecy cannot refer to long historic periods, but must be limited to a succession of incidents concentrated in one place and lustrum either in the far past or in the far future. Of all prophecies about which these questions can be raised, the present is the one which least satisfactorily admits of such literal interpretation and its consequences. Its actors, the woman and the dragon, are beyond all controversy mystical personages: one of them is expressly interpreted for us to be the devil; respecting the other there can be little doubt that she is the Church of God: her seed being, as expressly interpreted to be, God’s Christian people. The conflict then is that between Satan and the church. Its first great incident is the birth and triumph of the Son of God and of man. Is it likely that a few days or years will limit the duration of a prophecy confessedly of such wide import? I own it seems to me that this vision, even if it stood alone, is decisive against the literal acceptation of the stated periods. Rejecting that, how do we stand with regard to the other alternative in its two forms? Granting for the moment the year-day principle, will it help us here? If we take the flight into the wilderness as happening at any time between the Ascension, A.D. 30, and the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 70, 1260 years will bring us to some time between A.D. 1290 and 1330: a period during which no event can be pointed out as putting an end to the wilderness-state of the church. If again we enlarge our limit for the former event, and bring it down as late as Elliott does, i. e. to the period between the fourth and seventh centuries, we fall into all the difficulties which beset his most unsatisfactory explanation of the man-child and his being caught up to God’s throne, and besides into this one: that if the occultation of true religion [the condition of the invisible Church] was the beginning of the wilderness-state, then either the open establishment of the Protestant churches was the end of the wilderness-state of concealment, or those churches are no true churches: either of which alternatives would hardly be allowed by that author. And if on the other hand we desert the year day principle, and say that these defined and constantly recurring periods are not to be pressed, but indicate only long spaces of time thus pointed out mystically or analogically, we seem to incur the danger of missing the prophetic sense, and leaving unfixed that which the Spirit of God intended us to ascertain). And the dragon was wroth at the woman and departed (from his pursuit of her) to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus (as in ch. vi. 9: see note there. Notice as important elements for the interpretation 1) that the woman has seed besides the Man-child who was caught up to God’s throne [for this is the reference of the rest], who are not only distinct from herself, but who do not accompany her in her flight to the wilderness: 2) That those persons are described as being they who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus: 3) That during the woman’s time of her being fed in the wilderness, the dragon is making war, not against her, but against this remnant of her seed: 4) That by the form of expression here, descriptive of habit, and occurring at the breaking off of the vision as regards the general description of the dragon’s agency, it is almost necessarily implied, that the woman, while hidden in the wilderness from the dragon’s wrath, goes on bringing forth sons and daughters thus described. If I mistake not, the above considerations are fatal to the view which makes the flight of the woman into the wilderness consist in the withdrawal of God’s true servants from the world and from open recognition. For thus she must be identical with this remnant of her seed, and would herself be the object of the dragon’s hostile warfare, at the very time when, by the terms of the prophecy, she is safely hidden from it. I own that I have been led by these circumstances to think whether after all the woman may represent, not the invisible church of God’s true people which under all conditions of the world must be known only to Him, but the true visible Church; that Church which in its divinely prescribed for as existing at Jerusalem was the mother of our Lord according to the flesh, and which continued as established by our Lord and His Apostles, in unbroken unity during the first centuries, but which as time went on was broken up by evil men and evil doctrines, and has remained, unseen, unrealized, her unity an article of faith, not of sight, but still multiplying her seed, those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus, in various sects and distant countries, waiting the day for her comely order and oneness again to be manifested–the day when she shall “come up out of the wilderness, leaning on her Beloved:” when our Lord’s prayer for the unity of His being accomplished, the world shall believe that the Father has sent Him. If we are disposed to carry out this idea, we might see the great realization of the flight into the wilderness in the final severance of the Eastern and Western churches in the seventh century, and the flood cast after the woman by the dragon in the irruption of the Mahometan armies. But this, though not less satisfactory than the other interpretations, is unsatisfactory. The latter part of the vision yet waits clearing up).