Symbolism of the First Beast of Revelation
"And I saw a beast rising out of the sea"
In a prior article, I listed the characteristics of the two beasts in the Book of Revelation.
Because Revelation is full of so many symbols, I decided to break up these articles into small parts so they are not as confusing.
In this article, we analyze the symbolism of the first beast of Revelation 13.
Rises out of the sea
The sea is the home of evil, a chaotic, perilous and forbidding place.
This brings to mind Jesus walking on and calming the Sea of Galilee (Mk 6:48; Mk 4:39), Moses parting the Red Sea (Ex 14:21) and also God moving over the waters and bringing order to chaos in the Genesis creation story (Gn 1:2). Though the sea is frightening and represents chaos and evil, God has absolute dominion over it.
The beast coming out of the sea reminds us of the sea monster, Leviathan.
Let those curse it who curse the day, who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan. (Job 3:8)
"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord?” (Job 41:1)
Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan, thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. (Ps 74:14)
There go the ships, and Leviathan which thou didst form to sport in it. (Ps 104:26)
In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. (Isa 27:1)
Leviathan is the primeval sea monster of ancient mythology. The creature represents an unbridled evil aligned with the gods of the underworld. The author of Job portrays Leviathan as a terrible armored serpent who sneezes light and breathes fire. However, to God, Leviathan is but a mere plaything who speaks softly to God and asks to be God’s servant. The prophet Isaiah sees the death of Leviathan as a symbol for the destruction of the wicked (God’s enemies) which will precede the redemption of Israel.
Has seven heads with blasphemous names, ten horns and ten diadems; with the head of a leopard, the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion
This description represents a powerful tyrannical government and echoes back to the beasts described in the Book of Daniel (the body parts of the beast come from Daniel).1
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream, and told the sum of the matter. Daniel said, "I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles' wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side; it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, 'Arise, devour much flesh. After this I looked, and lo, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back; and the beast had four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrible and dreadful and exceedingly strong; and it had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots; and behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things. (Dn 7:1-8)
The seven heads of the beast represent the seven hills of the city of Rome, the home base of the government that persecuted Christians when Revelation was written. The ten horns represent “the fullness of might” of the totalitarian state and the diadems are crowns representing kingly rule.
The blasphemous names on the beast’s heads are a mockery of God. They are divine titles like “Lord” or “Lord and God,” which were titles used by Roman emperors who demanded their people worship them (their images and statutes) to prove their loyalty to the Roman state.
One of its heads has a mortal wound that has healed
The mortal head wound is probably a reference to Emperor Nero who was a great persecutor of Christians and a ruthless despot. He committed suicide, but was rumored to have survived. He didn’t survive, but Vespasian, Nero’s successor, was also a great persecutor of Christians, so he could be considered a second Nero.
The whole earth follows it with wonder; men worship it and the dragon
As stated above, the Roman people, including all of the people living in the lands conquered by Rome, were required to worship the emperor as a sign of loyalty to the state. Worshipping anything other than God is really the worship of Satan (1 Cor 10:20). If a person living under Roman authority refused to worship the emperor, he could be executed. Many early Christians suffered crucifixion and other atrocities at the hands of the Roman government for refusing to worship the emperor.
It utters haughty and blasphemous words and blasphemies against God, heaven and God’s saints; it is allowed to make war with and conquer the saints
The Roman emperors utter blasphemies, claiming to be divine when only God is worthy of worship. They persecute Christians, God’s saints, in various ways, including by excluding them from society, confiscating their property, suppressing their religious practices, and, finally, by imprisonment and execution. “Mysteriously, even the activity of the beast falls within the divine plan.”
The dragon gave it his power, throne and authority which extends over all people; it is allowed to exercise such authority for 42 months; those who worship the beast will not be saved
Rome is the dragon’s, Satan’s, agent. Satan persecutes and kills Christians through Rome and its leaders. 42 months is the time period allowed for the nations to trample the holy temple (Rev 11:2), for the two witnesses to prophesy (Rev 11:3) and for the woman, who flees from the dragon, to live in the wilderness (Rev 12:6, 14).
The first beast of Revelation was Rome. A totalitarian state governed by despotic leaders who persecuted and murdered Christians. Though the Roman emperors believed they were divine and made themselves into idols, they were mere agents of Satan. Rome seemed invincible,2 but all tyrants who persecute God’s people will eventually be destroyed. God allows evil according to his divine plan, but he has complete and absolute authority over Leviathan who is nothing but a mere plaything to him.
John of Patmos, wrote about Rome, but like all other books of the Bible, Revelation is applicable to all people and all times. Even now.
What idols are we being asked to worship as a sign of loyalty or solidarity with the state?
Aguilar Chiu, Jose Enrique, Richard J. Clifford, Carol J. Dempsey, Eileen M. Schuller, Thomas D. Stegman, Ronald D. Witherup, eds. The Paulist Biblical Commentary. New York: Paulist Press, 2018.
Attridge, Harold W. ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible, Including Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Clabeaux, John J. “Revelation.” In Aquilar Chiu, The Paulist Biblical Commentary, 1571-1611.
Harrelson, Walter J., ed. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.
Harrington, Daniel J., ed. Sacra Pagina: Revelation. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1993.
Powell, Mark Allan, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
Youngblood, Ronald F., ed. Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary: New and Enhanced Edition. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.
I will go over the symbolism of the beasts described by Daniel in another article.
"Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?" (Rev 13:4)