Ford C. Ottman and the flood from the mouth of the serpent
Ford C. Ottman (1859-1929) was a Presbyterian pastor in Stamford Conn. In his commentary on Revelation 12:7-17, he interpreted the woman in this chapter as the Jews, and the flood from the mouth of the serpent in Revelation 12:15 as armies which attack Jerusalem. He said the Jews will flee to a literal desert in order to escape their enemies.
Clearly, the flood from the mouth of the serpent is not an army of men, as the serpent is a symbol of Satan. I suggest that Ottman’s flawed interpretation, presented below, is part of the flood from the mouth of the serpent foretold in the prophecy. His book contributed to a flood of books and preaching promoting dispensationalism during the late 19th and 20th centuries, that carried away the churches, especially in America.
Ottman wrote: 
The thought of a literal war in heaven has seemed to some to be so extravagant, that the skill of many apocalyptic exegetes has been put to the test to explain, or, perhaps more properly, to explain away, this vision. Lange, apparently, will not allow of Satan’s being in heaven at all. But why should he? The ever available Church is fully sufficient for the solution of all his exegetical problems. He says: “The Heaven, in which the Dragon makes his appearance, can be neither the antemundane Heaven of the angel-world–since the fallen angels did not immediately fall to earth–nor the Heaven in which the glorified Christ is enthroned. That which is intended, therefore, is the Heaven that Christ has instituted on earth–the invisible Church, the communion of saints–into which Satan, as a dragon, has found entrance, just as, long ago, he pressed into Paradise.”
With such imaginings thrust upon us by an able commentator, it is no wonder if the ordinary student be in despair of ever arriving at the meaning of definite language.
Dean Alford gives us something much more like interpretation, and, at the same time, furnishes a vivid illustration of how near a man may come to the mark, and yet miss it. A literal interpretation, if it be the true one, must of necessity be consistent throughout. Dean Alford is clear enough until he comes to the flight of the woman into the wilderness. Here he becomes bewildered, and makes frank acknowledgment of his inability to give us anything satisfactory. His heroic effort to deliver himself from the difficulties by which he is overwhelmed is so interesting that it may be well to quote him at length.
He says: “We cannot help being struck with the continued analogy between this prophecy and the history of the Exodus. There we have the flight into 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 anything by their combination. But anything 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 3 ½ 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 or 365 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 space of time 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 out 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 danger of missing the prophetic sense, and leaving unfixed that which apparently 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. Notice as important elements for the interpretation: (1) That the woman has seed besides the manchild 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 into 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 G0d’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 form 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 as unsatisfactory.”
This frank expression of dissatisfaction shows how fully Alford realized the difficulty in the way of making the woman in this prophecy a symbol of the Church. His halting exegesis is the result of his failure to discern the true significance of the symbols. Assuming the woman to be the Church, he has fallen into the common error which is absolutely fatal to a consistent interpretation.
The dragon is a symbol, and we are not left in doubt as to its meaning. It represents “the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan.” Michael is an archangel who is spoken of in the Old Testament as “a great prince” in specific relation to Danie1’s people. The woman is Israel. Had Dean Alford seen the distinction between Israel and the Church, he would have escaped giving us the exceedingly lame and apologetic interpretation that we have considered. Let the woman represent, what she assuredly does, Israel; and let us keep in mind, that we are at the time of Israel’s restoration which is to be effected in the seven years of her incomplete history; and then her flight into the wilderness and her nourishment there for three years and six months can be taken literally, and brought into full accord with what Jesus says concerning this period when He warns them that shall be in Judea at that time to flee into the mountains. It is to be observed, that our Lord’s warning to flee follows the announcement of the desolation of the sanctuary, which occurs in the middle of the week. The sealed company of the seventh chapter preserves Israel nationally during the great tribulation which begins with the violation of the covenant in the middle of the week. This sealed company, constituting the nation, may flee to, and be nourished in, the wilderness during the twelve hundred and sixty days; while the rest of the Israelites remaining in Jerusalem would constitute “the remnant of her seed” that becomes the object of Satan’s persecution. This interpretation is, in the judgment of the writer, equal to a certainty. It is, at any rate, clear and consistent. Symbols cannot be forced into representing anything but the definite object for which they stand. So long as we insist upon the woman representing the Church, there is no possible door of escape from hopeless confusion. With this in mind let us now look at the details of the picture set before us.
There is a conflict in heaven. Michael and his angels are at war with the dragon and his angels. The conflict ends in the expulsion of Satan and his rebellious hosts from heaven. This is followed by a great voice in heaven proclaiming the glory of God and the authority of Christ. The heavens are called upon to rejoice over Satan’s defeat. That Satan should have access to heaven is expressly counter to the common opinion of men. For a great many people Satan has altogether ceased to be. To a great many others the word merely conveys the idea of impersonal evil. Many who believe in the personality of Satan think of him as being confined in hell, and are shocked with the suggestion of his being allowed in heaven. Human opinion as to the propriety of things may be of some value, provided it does not conflict with the distinct revelation of Scripture. If it contradicts the Word of God, it is worse than worthless, it is wicked. There are certain revelations of Scripture, the propriety of which no man can question without an insufferable assumption of ability to question the ways of God. We have already considered the subject of Satan’s origin and fall, and concerning this nothing further need be said. The Bible is not silent as to the present whereabouts of Satan. Uniform testimony is borne to the fact of his being at liberty. That good angels are ministering spirits among men is clearly evident from many passages of Scripture. These angels, too, are often the ministers of judgment. It is quite evident also that God at times receives reports from these angels, and decides questions that are beyond their wisdom. The court of God in session is set forth in the book of Job. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went from the presence of the Lord” (Job 1:6-12).
We have a vision of another session of God’s court, seen by the prophet Micaiah, who says: “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him. And the Lord said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so” (1 Kings 22:19-22).
Such passages of Scripture, however difficult of explanation, plainly testify to the fact that Satan and his lying spirits had at one time access to God. It is not strange, surely, to allow of the same possibility now. Satan’s place and sphere of authority have already come under full discussion.
Our blessings, as the epistle to the Ephesians assures us, are “in heavenly places” whither also Christ has gone; and there, according to the same epistle, “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6: 12. R. V.), Satan’s power exercised thus in the heavenly places may be greater than is commonly believed. Jesus said to Peter: “Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22: 31). The word translated “desired” is, in the margin of the revised version, rendered “obtained you by asking” and this seems to imply the right of Satan to sift what purports to be God’s wheat. In our chapter of Revelation he is represented as the accuser of men before God. In this character he appears in the passage quoted from the book of job, and the New Testament is consistent with the Old as to his place and character. His expulsion from heaven does not take place until the Church is removed from the sphere of earth, and no longer subject to his accusations.
The words of our Lord, “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10: 18), seem to refer to the expulsion from heaven now under consideration. Concerning this Daniel says: “At that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book” (Dan. 12:1).
This contest of Michael is in the interest of Daniel’s people. The time of their restoration has come, and the expulsion of Satan and his host from heaven is the initial action that has that deliverance in view. After Satan is cast out a great voice is heard in heaven saying, “Now is come the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ; for the accuser of our brethren is cast out, who accused them before our God day and night; and they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and they loved not their life unto death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that tabernacle in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil is come down unto you having great wrath, knowing that he hath a short time.”
The voice that celebrates this triumph is not identified for us, but is apparently the representative voice of the elders, who rejoice in the casting out of the accuser of their brethren. Believers in Christ are now subject to the accusation of Satan. When, at the end of the age, they shall be caught away to meet the Lord in the air, they shall be forever beyond the reach of his accusing voice. Heaven, no longer disturbed by his presence, shall be at rest.
The brethren are further identified by the expression: “They overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and they loved not their life unto death.” Though accused by Satan, and no doubt justly, their victory over him is grounded on the blood of the Lamb. Without that blood atoning for the sin of which they are accused the charges of Satan would have been irrefutable. By virtue of the blood they conquered. The blood gave them standing before God, and their testimony to its value is given as the ground of their victory. With the saints gathered home and glorified, no further accusation against them is possible, and Satan is cast out of heaven altogether. The earth, to which Satan comes, is in literal contrast with heaven, out of which he is cast. Peace reigns in heaven, though for a little while the conflict must necessarily rage upon the earth.
Let us take note of the utter infatuation of sin in its last manifestation. Satan had “great wrath, knowing that he hath a short time.” With the clearest apprehension of what is before him, he is the more inflamed, and keeps up the hopeless contest, only adding the more to the awful weight that shall sink him in eternal doom. Knowing the evil and continuing in it is nothing less than moral suicide.
Cast unto the earth he immediately begins persecuting the woman who brought forth the male child, “and there were given to the woman two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness unto her place, where she is sustained a time and times and half a time, from the face of the serpent.” How graciously God leads Israel to think of her deliverance from Egypt when He speaks of the eagle’s wings!
Pharaoh is called by Ezekiel, “The great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers.” When God brought the Israelites out of their bondage into the wilderness, He said: “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself ” (Ex. 19:4). In that deliverance God had no helper. He alone brought them from under the oppressive world-power, and in such a way as to teach Israel that her salvation was altogether of Him. So in the days to come, when the final deliverance shall be accomplished, God shall allure her into the wilderness. How freely and beautifully they are assured of this by one of their own prophets. “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her. And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope: and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt. And it shall be at that day, saith the Lord, that thou shalt call me Ishi; and shalt call me no more Baali. For I will take away the names of Baalim out of her mouth, and they shall no more be remembered by their name. And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord. And it shall come to pass in that day, I will hear, saith the Lord, I will hear the heavens, and they shall hear the earth; and the earth shall hear the corn, and the wine, and the oil; and they shall hear Jezreel. And I will sow her unto me in the earth; and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God” (Hos. 2:14-23).
Such is the blessed prospect in store for the outcast house of Israel. God has not forgotten them, and for them His love and faithfulness abides. Under the last persecution of Satan there shall be a flight from Jerusalem as literal as the language here declares. The flood, cast out of the mouth of the serpent after the retreating woman, may easily represent one or more of the armies that are yet to encompass Jerusalem before the time of her final deliverance. It is equally intelligible to think of a literal desert into which these hunted Israelites shall flee. There they shall be sustained by the hand of the covenant-keeping God. The literal wilderness would be easily capable of bringing destruction upon the pursuing army.
Perhaps reference is made to this in the words: “The earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth and drank up the river which the dragon cast out of his mouth.” The barren wilderness is without resource to preserve a nation’s strength, and, while it proves a place of refuge for the hunted, it baffles the enemy in his pursuit of them.
The integrity of the nation is secured by the flight of the woman into the wilderness. The remnant of her seed which does not escape becomes the object of Satan’s malice. The persecution is especially directed against those, who “keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus.” This faithful “remnant” may be the fruit of the testimony borne by the two witnesses. Though apparently unsheltered from Satan’s wrath, they are nevertheless under the protecting care of God. As already suggested, the sealed ones of the seventh chapter may constitute the company which is allured into the wilderness, while the martyrs under the beast constitute the remnant which is won for God through the testimony of the witnesses. This is perhaps of no great importance, except to indicate the distinction between the woman, representing the nation, and the remnant of her seed which becomes the final object of Satan’s wrath.
There is a passage in Isaiah that seems to be in obvious connection with this. The prophet says: “Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast. In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Is. 26:20, 27:1).
This gracious invitation follows Israel’s repentance, and after they have made full confession of their utter nothingness. Their acknowledgment of sin and failure is followed by the glorious prediction: “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead” (Is. 26: 19). After this follows the summons to enter their chambers that they may hide themselves there for a little while until the indignation shall be overpast.
When the tribulation is past, the dragon falls into the hands of God for judgment. This is immediately followed by the song of the vineyard restored. “In that day sing ye unto her, A vineyard of red wine. I the Lord do keep it; I will water it every moment: lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day. Fury is not in me: who would set the briers and thorns against me in battle? I would go through them, I would burn them together. Or let him take hold of my strength, that he may make peace with me; and he shall make peace with me. He shall cause them that come of Jacob to take root: Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit” (Is. 27:2-6).
The various voices of prophecy blend in one harmonious testimony. Israel, not the Church, shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit. The expulsion of Satan from heaven will be followed by the flight into the wilderness from which, after the indignation is past, Israel shall come up “leaning upon her beloved.” Then Christ, in Millennial glory, shall come into inheritance of Solomon’s “vineyard at Baal-hamon.” But this comes only in response to Israel’s prayer, “Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices” (Cant. 8:14).
- Henry Alford’s commentary on Revelation 12 (creationconcept.wordpress.com)
- Henry Alford on the woman in the wilderness (creationconcept.wordpress.com)
- The river of water from the mouth of the serpent (creationconcept.wordpress.com)