Someone got in touch asking about the interpretation of John’s vision of a rider on a white horse and the war against “the beast and the kings of the earth” in Revelation 19:11-21.
What does Revelation 19 and the rider on the white horse defeating the beast, false prophet, and other kings represent? Is this symbolic of Christ’s conquest over the nations (perhaps a parallel of the millennium in Rev. 20?) or is it pointing toward a specific judge over a particular enemy (Rome or Jerusalem)?
I think the answer is “yes”, but anyway here in summary is how I read the passage…
I made the case in The Coming of the Son of Man for thinking that the series of judgments that comprise the central visionary content of Revelation are directed first at Israel (seals and trumpets), then at Rome (bowls). I disagree with the Preterists who restrict John’s vision—addressed to churches in Asia Minor, for goodness sake!—to the period leading up to AD 70.
These depictions of judgment culminate in Revelation 18 in the prophetic announcement that Babylon the great is fallen. I take this to be a reference to the expected overthrow of Rome as a pagan power implacably opposed to those who believe that the God of Israel has made his Son judge and ruler of the nations.
- 20 reasons for thinking that “Babylon the great” is Rome not Jerusalem
- Babylon the great: all intertextual roads lead to Rome
The overthrow of Rome is accompanied by celebration in heaven, because God has judged the city that corrupted the world with its immorality and has “avenged on her the blood of his servants” (19:1-2).
This is followed by the marriage of the Lamb and the church, or that part of the church, which has been qualified by its faithful witness through this dark and dangerous “eschatological” transition—the 144,000 who have been “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (19:6-10; Rev. 14:4).
This brings us to the vision of the rider on a white horse (19:11-21).
The rider is clearly Jesus. He will strike down the nations, he will rule them with a rod of iron, and he will “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15). He will become, therefore “King of kings and Lord of lords”.
Jesus is portrayed in this way as the Davidic king who will “strike the earth with the word of his mouth”, who “stands up to rule the nations” (Is 11:4, 10), who has been given the nations as his heritage to rule “with a rod of iron” (Ps. 2:8-9), who executes judgment on the nations on behalf of YHWH (cf. Is. 63:3; Joel 3:13).
He leads an army of those who have likewise been qualified to judge and rule by their suffering—“arrayed in fine linen, white and pure” (Rev. 19:14; cf. 19:8).
The point is that while the city of Rome as the seat of an idolatrous empire has been overthrown, the beast, which is the empire, and the kings of the earth and their armies aligned with it also need to be defeated. This defeat is described in terms of the “great supper of God”, presumably in ironic contrast to the “marriage supper of the Lamb”. Carrion birds will feast, metaphorically speaking, on the corpses of the kings and their armies destroyed “by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse” (Rev. 19:21).
What the passage depicts, therefore, in the vivid language of Old Testament prophecy and Jewish apocalyptic, is the extension of judgment to the nations that were formerly under the rule of Rome. The client kings and those who supported Rome are defeated, and their place is taken by the Son, who will be King over all the kings of the nations, Lord over all the lords of the nations.
The comprehensiveness of the transformation is underlined by the fact that the beast is thrown into the lake of fire, and the dragon—the satanic power behind the beast-like empire—is confined to the abyss (Rev. 19:20; 20:2-3).
So Rome and its empire have been judged, and the authority to rule has been transferred to Jesus, who has won that right through his faithful suffering. He will, therefore, reign throughout the symbolic period of a thousand years, until the final renewal of heaven and earth. The martyrs killed by Rome are raised in the “first resurrection” and reign with him (Rev. 20:4-6).
In my view, that rule over the nations took the concrete, historical form of Christendom for 1500 years or so—at least, that seems to me the best way to preserve the tight relationship between scripture and history. We are now trying to develop credible ways to keep telling that story in the post-Christendom era.