Revelation 20 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Revelation 20
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

THE MILLENNIUM.—Some few introductory words on this most difficult chapter are needful. The outline of incidents described is very simple. An angel descends, lays hold upon the dragon, binds him, and imprisons him in the abyss, where he remains for a thousand years, after which he is loosed for a short time. During this thousand years the martyrs, and those who had not received the mark of the beast, live and reign with Christ. At the close of this period the dragon is loosed; the nations are once more deceived; the camp of the saints is threatened by the dragon, and those whom he has reduced to his service; but the fire from heaven destroys the adversaries, and the dragon is cast into the lake of fire. The general judgment follows. Simple as the vision appears, every interpretation is beset with difficulties. These difficulties are too numerous to be treated of here. Our space will only allow us to indicate the view adopted, though with the greatest hesitation, in this Commentary. (1) The millennium vision is, like so many of the apostolic visions, an ideal picture; it exhibits a state of things which is possible to mankind at any time; for, to use the language of Hengstenberg, “If the earth were to watch and pray for a thousand years, Satan would have nothing on it.” Like the vision of the first seal, it shows us that the victory of Christ was a real victory, and has put into man’s hand the promise of security against the wicked one’s devices. The defeat of Satan (inflicted by redemption) is described as “a fall from heaven” (Luke 10:18), as “a casting out” (John 12:31), as “a judgment past,” “the Prince of this world has been judged” (John 16:11). The ideal picture corresponds. “Satan is chained in the abyss, as the angels said by St. Peter to have been delivered into chains of darkness” (2 Peter 2:4). (2) But the rejection of Christ’s power and victory postpones the realisation of this picture; the sullen refusing of the King’s Son, “We will not have this man to reign over us,” interposes a barrier against an immediate fulfilment of the vision. But the fulfilment is not utterly lost; the vision is for an appointed time; it will have its realisation, though man’s waywardness and unbelief occasion its delay. (3) The vision has its approximate fulfilment as the Church of Christ, in the faith of the reality of her Lord’s victory, carries on her warfare against the prince of this world and spiritual wickedness in high places. That this approximate fulfilment is not unreal may be seen in the fact that Christendom has replaced heathendom, Christ has taken the throne of the world, the prince of this world has been judged, the ascendency of Christian thought and Christian principles has marvellously humanised and purified the world. To an Irenæus, a Polycarp, a Justin Martyr, a Tertullian, the picture of the world during the Christian centuries would have the aspect of a millennium, when contrasted with the age of Pagan domination and Pagan persecution. In their eyes, accustomed to the darkness of heathenism, the world as influenced by a widely diffused Christianity would seem to be a world in which Christ ruled. They would see in the acknowledgment of apostles and martyrs and confessors the wondrous resurrection power of God’s truth; they would see how those who fell for Christ had stepped from their forgotten graves to sit down with Christ in His throne. The apostles, the martyrs, the faithful do reign with Christ. The sovereignty of the world belongs far more to St. Paul and St. John than to Nero and Galba. But though thus the saints rise and reign with Christ over Christendom, we can see that this is only an approximate realisation, and falls short of the ideal picture. Christendom established and heathendom overthrown would be a millennium in the eyes of an Ignatius; but the Church of to-day looks for a further and higher fulfilment. Is she justified in this expectation? If the principles laid down elsewhere (see Note on Revelation 6) be correct, the Church is justified in looking for the full realisation of the vision in a future age. She can accept the first-fruits of God’s promises, but she will not mistake them for the harvest; she can rejoice in the growth of her Lord’s kingdom, but she looks for the day when the powers of evil will be more effectually curbed, and the gospel will have freer course. Then the fulness of Christ’s victory will be more clearly seen.

And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.

(1) And I saw an angel come down . . .—Rather, And I saw an angel descending out of the heaven, having the key of the abyss, and a great chain on (not merely in his hand, but hanging from it as it would do when on) his hand. It is needless to settle who is represented by this angel. It is enough that in the vision he manifests by the key and the chain which he carries that there is power in Him, who has the keys of death and of Hades (Revelation 1:18), to bind, as He has death-wounded, him that had the power of death. The bottomless pit is the abyss, as we have had elsewhere (Revelation 9:1; Revelation 11:7; and Revelation 17:8. Comp. Luke 8:31); it is figuratively the abode of the devil and his associate angels (Matthew 25:41).

And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
(2) And he laid hold on the dragon . . .—Or, And he laid hold of the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him a thousand years. The four words are thus used to describe the archenemy; they are the same as those used for the same purpose in Revelation 12:9. Over the world he has exercised in every quarter his power as prince of this world, and he has been found fierce as the dragon, subtle as the serpent, the slanderer of God and His people, and the adversary of all righteousness. He is bound as Christ declared (Matthew 12:29; comp. Colossians 2:15). A thousand years was the length at which Rabbis fixed the duration of Messiah’s kingdom. The period is not to be understood literally (see next verse).

And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
(3) And cast him into the bottomless pit . . .—Rather, and cast him into the abyss (same word as in Revelation 20:1), and locked and sealed (the door or mouth) above him, that he may not deceive the nations any more until the thousand years shall have been finished; after these things he must be loosed for a little time. The sealing reminds us of the sealing employed when the wicked one had power through man’s agency to imprison God’s messengers. (Comp. Daniel 6:17, and Matthew 27:66.) Of the exact moment when this binding and imprisoning took place it is not needful to inquire too curiously. That which in the vision is described as the work of ä moment may in the fact and fulfilment be a very gradual work; or rather, the full manifestation of its accomplishment may be only gradually made clear. To fix it therefore, to any incident (for example, as Hengstenberg is disposed to do to the coronation of Charlemagne), is to fall into the “vicious realism” against which he rightly protests. The same applies to the duration of the imprisonment; it is not to be understood literally any more than the other numbers in the book; it symbolises a lengthened period. This period is followed by the loosing again of the devil for a short time. (See Note on Revelation 20:7.)

And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

(4) And I saw thrones, and they sat . . . There is a prominence given to the thrones, because the thought of the reign of the saints is uppermost in the mind of the seer. The thrones are seen, and those who sat on them. It has been asked, “By whom are the thrones occupied?” The answer is supplied in the latter part of the verse. Those who are in the latter part said to reign with Christ are clearly those who sit upon the thrones which first caught the prophet’s eye; these are all the real servants of God. They appear before the seer in two great classes:—First, the martyrs who have been faithful unto death; for he speaks first of seeing the souls of those who have been beheaded (strictly, “slain with the axe,” but clearly the special class of beheaded martyrs is to be taken as representing all), because of the testimony of Jesus, and because of the word of God. The number of the martyrs is now complete (comp. Revelation 6:11); these form the first class mentioned. Secondly, those who have been faithful in life occupy these thrones. The prophet sees these, even whosoever did not worship (during life) the wild beast, nor yet his image, and did not receive the mark (comp. Revelation 13:10) on their forehead and upon their hand. The triumph and sovereignty, whatever they be, are shared by all the faithful. These things are stated as constituting their privileges. They lived, whereas the rest of the dead lived not; they reigned, and judgment was given them. This last has been felt to be a difficulty. What sort of judgment is intended? The passage in Daniel (Daniel 7:22) is clearly suggestive of the present one. The phrase (judgment was given) is not there to be understood as meaning that right was done them (see Note in Speaker’s Commentary on Daniel), neither must it be so understood here. Judicial powers are given to the saints as to those who occupy thrones; “the chief power in governing” (Gebhardt) is given them (comp. Matthew 19:28, and 1 Corinthians 6:2-3); they reign, they judge, they live; the true and full powers of life are seen to be theirs. And is not this the case always? Who, next to Him who knows the secrets of our hearts, exercises judicial powers over men? Do not those whose lives, as we read them, rebuke our own? Truly, those who lived for God, and refused the mark of earthliness, reign and judge us in our worldliness and weakness. This is their sovereign honour here, besides the glad reign in the unseen world.

But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
(5) But the rest of the dead lived not again . . .—Rather, The rest of the dead lived not (we must omit the word “again”) until the thousand years be finished. This is the first resurrection. In those words we meet one of the keys to the controversy respecting the millennium. What is this resurrection? Is it the resurrection at which the saints shall assume the glorified bodies, and their perfect consummation and bliss? It has been argued that the word must be understood literally as of a bodily resurrection. It is further said that the contrasting words (“the rest of the dead lived not”) necessitate this literal interpretation. But there is no reason for restricting the word Resurrection to a literal meaning. The sacred writers frequently use the idea figuratively. They speak of a resurrection which is spiritual; the dead in sin are summoned to rise from the dead that Christ might give them light (comp. Ephesians 2:1; Ephesians 5:14); indeed, the figure often underlies the language and arguments of New Testament writers (John 5:24-25; Romans 6:5; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Colossians 2:12). But do the words, “the rest of the dead lived not,” force upon us so sharp a contrast that we must understand the first resurrection literally? Undoubtedly the words are in contrast. If the words “lived not” necessarily mean that the rest of the dead did not enjoy physical life on earth, then the living with Christ of the saints and the first resurrection must be understood as giving physical life on earth to the saints. But are we bound to thus understand literally the “lived” of Revelation 20:4 and the “lived not” of Revelation 20:5? There are two or three considerations which will be enough to show that they need not be understood thus. (1) The word “to live” is used about sixteen times in the Apocalypse. On nine of these it is applied to the eternal life of God the Father or God the Son; it is twice used in the passage before us (Revelation 20:4-5). Of the remaining five occasions where the word is used, it is four times employed in what can scarcely be other than a figurative sense (Revelation 3:1; Revelation 7:17; Revelation 13:14; Revelation 19:20—some might doubt the figurative use in this last passage), but only once is it employed in a sense which can fairly be defended as literal (Revelation 16:3). (2) There will be faithless people during the millennium—the nations to be deceived (Revelation 20:8). Are we then to picture saints with glorified resurrection bodies living on the earth, which at the same time is tenanted by men and women still in the natural body? (3) There is a resurrection, which surely is the second resurrection, described in Revelation 20:12-13 : this last is a general resurrection of the dead, small and great. There seems no adequate reason to affirm that this first resurrection, then, must be physical. Our notions of life and death are so circumscribed by the geography of earth, that we seldom give to the word “life” in our thoughts its true richness and fulness of meaning. We fail to remember that the faithful ones who live, because Christ lives, have the promise of the life that now is, as well as that which is to come; we forget that God is not God of the dead, but of the living.

Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
(6) Blessed and holy is he that hath. . . .—This is one of the benedictions of the Apocalypse. The blessing on those who have part or share in the first resurrection has this definite feature. On these the second death has not power (or authority). The second death stands in contrast with the first resurrection. The second death is not the mere physical dying; it is rather that more awful death which lies outside the region of the things seen and temporal. Whatever it means, and whatever the conditions which surround it, it is spiritual rather than physical. It is not the life of the body which protects the life of the spirit; it is the living and believing in God which protects from the second death; according to Christ’s word of such, “they shall never die” (John 11:26; comp. John 10:27-28). Blessed, too, are such in being priests and kings (they shall reign). Theirs is the priesthood of life who have offered themselves a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1). The kingship of life is theirs, who have overcome the world-powers in the word of God and in the blood of the Lamb; these truly reign. (Comp. Note on Revelation 5:10.)

And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,

(7) And when the thousand years are expired.—Rather, And when the thousand years have been finished. The binding of Satan implied restraint put upon his power and freedom of action; the loosing means the removing of these restraints. The reign of Christ with His saints has been a witness to the power of our Master over the wicked one. This witness has been an opportunity also to the world. It was the earthly approximation to the ideal picture. It testified how completely “all power in heaven and in earth was given to Christ,” and how there lay, therefore, within the reach of men the power of Him who would tread down their true enemies, and turn His hand against their adversaries (Psalm 81:13-14). But the time of opportunity must end. “O that Israel would have hearkened,” is a cry that might have its counterpart over the history of earth’s lost opportunities. Christendom is planted in the world to be a framework of regenerating power to mankind, just as the Law and its adjuncts were designed to be in Israel. But, as there the old idolatrous influences broke in upon the rule of God’s covenant, so here do we find the vision picturing to us how Christendom will be invaded by the influences of the evil one, when mankind has let slip this splendid opportunity of a really golden age.

And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.
(8) And shall go out to deceive the nations.—Perhaps better, shall come out, as the earth is the view-point. The nations deceived and led astray are designated as Gog and Magog. The names are derived from Ezekiel (Ezekiel 38, 39). In rabbinical books the names were used to describe the nations who would rise against the reign of the Messiah. The names are to be understood figuratively. No particular nation could be well spoken of as “the nations in the four corners of the earth.” The origin of the figure is not difficult. In Ezekiel, Gog is called the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal; or, adopting another rendering, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal. Magog is mentioned in Genesis 10:2 as one of the sons of Japheth. The name is there associated with Gomer, Madai, and Meshech. Gomer is thought to correspond with the Cimmerians, Madai with the Medes, and Meshech with the Muscovites. Mr. Smith, in his history of Assurbanipal from cuneiform inscriptions, thinks that a certain chief of the Saka (Scythians), named Gaagi, is the same as Gog. The sons of this Gaagi are mentioned in connection with Birighudri, a chief of Madai (Medes). Josephus also identifies Magog with the Scythians. The remembrance of the Scythian invasion lingered long in the minds of Asiatic nations; and the names of those northern nations were adopted as representative of the great and undefined enemies who would in after ages assail the Messiah’s kingdom, or wage unprovoked war against the true Israel of God. Ezekiel’s language in Ezekiel 38:17 seems to imply as much. The Evangelist here accepts the names employed by the earlier prophet. Gog and Magog stand for the great hosts of the nations, and their leaders, who would break forth into uncalled-for hostility against the people of the Lord. It must be remembered that the imagery is derived from the history of Israel. Jerusalem, the beloved city of the true Israel of God, looks out upon her foes. They are Babylon, Egypt, or they may come from the far northern regions, the abode of Gog and Magog, whence the wild and relentless invaders had poured upon the land. Gog and Magog are thus used as typical names. Under the auspices of such, the great gathering of turbulent and reckless enemies of the faith would take place. The hosts of the foes of Jerusalem are described as innumerable as the sand of the sea. This great concourse of countless hosts is moved by hostility to the faith of Christ. The nations, thus multitudinous, have been restrained during the millennial reign. Evil and unbelief have been held in check, but they have not been extinguished. The millennial reign is clearly, therefore, not a period in which the rule of Christ is universally and sincerely accepted. There are powers at work which compete for human affections and interests; but the general acceptance of Christian principles keeps the evil forces in abeyance, and the gracious strength of God limits the power of the archenemy. But when the restraints are removed, the long-suppressed evil breaks forth, and the reluctantly submissive nations are gathered together to the war—not to battle, as in our version, but to the war—i.e., to the war which has been before spoken of in Revelation 16, 19. All the restraints which Christ and Christian teaching had supplied to the world are gradually removed. The Euphrates is dried, the Devil is loosed, the unclean spirits have gone forth, the last phase of the long war between good and evil, between Christ and Belial, has been entered.

And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.
(9) And they went up on the breadth of the earth.—The hostile multitudes spread like swarms over the earth, and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. Jerusalem is the beloved city—in it was the Mount Zion which God loved (Psalm 78:68). It is the figure of the true spiritual Zion and Jerusalem which has been faithful to her king. The beloved city has its camp; it is ready for war. It has waged its spiritual warfare against all forms of evil, Its citizens, like the returned exiles (Nehemiah 4:17-18), could never lay down the sword (comp. Ephesians 6:10; John 2:14; John 5:4); but the hostile demonstration is arrested by divine intervention. There came down fire out of the heaven (the words “from God” are of doubtful authority) and devoured them. The Shechinah light tabernacled over the holy city. Its light was also a flame ready to break forth upon the wicked. (Comp. Revelation 1:14; Revelation 7:15, Note; Hebrews 12:29; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10.) There may be allusion to the overthrow of the cities of the plains (Genesis 19:24), but other incidents may have been in the prophet’s mind: the fire which fell from heaven upon the enemies of an earlier prophet, Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-14), and the fire which broke forth from the tabernacle in the wilderness upon those who defied the laws of the God of Israel (Numbers 16:16-17; Numbers 16:35; Leviticus 10:1-2). It must be remembered that, in the passage before us, the prophet is using the incidents and actions of the past as imagery, and that the present vision is figurative, though of course not mere empty figure: for Christ will thoroughly purge His floor (Matthew 3:12).

And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
(10) And the devil that deceived them . . .—Better, And the devil that deceiveth them, or was deceiving them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where are also the wild beasts and the false prophet; and they shall be tormented by day and by night unto the ages of the ages. The devil cast from heaven (Revelation 12:9), bound in the abyss (Revelation 20:3), is now flung into the flaming lake. There they (i.e., the devil, the wild beast, and the false prophet) are tormented unto the ages of ages. (Comp. Revelation 14:10-11; and Note on Revelation 19:20.)

THE JUDGMENT OF THE WORLD.—The three enemies have been overthrown and driven forth from the earth which they have sought to destroy (Revelation 11:18). The judgment of human beings must follow.

And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
(11) And I saw a great white throne . . .—Or, And I saw a great white throne, and Him that was seated thereon, from whose face fled the earth and the heaven, and place was not found for them. The throne is described as great and white, to set it in strong contrast to other thrones mentioned in the book, e.g., Revelation 4:4; Revelation 20:4. It is a white throne, in token of the purity of the judgment which follows. He who sits upon it is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity. It is asked, Who is He that is seated here? Throughout the book God is called “Him that sitteth upon the throne” (Revelation 4:3; Revelation 5:1); but we must not understand this as excluding the Son of God, who sits with His Father on His throne (Revelation 3:21), and who, as Son of Man, declared that He would sit upon the throne of His glory and divide “all the nations” as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-32; comp. also Revelation 6:16; Revelation 11:15-18). At the face of Him who sits upon the throne the heaven and earth flee. Hengstenberg interprets this of the putting out of the way “all of the irrational creation which had been pressed into the service of sin.” Gebhardt interprets it of “the destruction of the whole present visible world.” A comparison, however, of the imagery employed in Revelation 6:12-14; Revelation 16:19-20, should make us cautious of asserting that any great physical catastrophe is described here. Doubtless revolution must precede renewal (Revelation 21:1); but it is never safe to ground our expectations of the nature of such changes upon language which is confessedly poetical in form. Some physical revolutions do in all probability await our earth, but the eye of the prophet looks more to the moral and spiritual regeneration of the world—more to the spiritual well-being of mankind, than to any physical changes which may synchronise with the culmination of the world’s moral history.

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
(12, 13) And I saw the dead, small and great . . .—Or rather, And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before (not “God,” as in text, but) the throne, and books (or, rolls) were opened; and another book (or, roll) was opened, which is (the book) of life; and the dead were judged out of the things which had been written in the books (or, rolls) according to their works. And the sea gave forth the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave forth the dead who were in them; and they were judged each according to their works. The latter of these verses is added to assure us that the dead, in whatever quarter, must appear before the judgment throne. Death and Hades—“the grave world,” and “the great watery grave”—the sea, “the universal hidden region of the dead,” give up its prey; for there is One who sits upon the throne who has the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). It has been said by some that the dead here spoken of as coming forth from the grave are not all the dead, but only “the rest of the dead” mentioned in Revelation 20:5. Those who believe that the first resurrection there mentioned is a literal physical resurrection are compelled to limit the resurrection here to the resurrection only of the remainder of the dead. But the verses before us suggest no limitation, and the language most assuredly tends to the idea that saints and faithful servants of God take part in this later resurrection. If all the saints and righteous men of old are raised prior to the millennium, and take no part in this last judgment scene, then only the faithless and wicked are left to be judged before the great white throne, and as none of these can be found written in the book of life, the bringing forth of that book becomes meaningless. This is one result of vicious literalism of interpretations. The real significance of the scene lies in the vivid picturing of that great and solemn truth that we must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, and that before Him there is nothing hidden which shall not be revealed (Matthew 10:26; comp. 1 Corinthians 4:5). Then shall every human life appear in its true light. stripped of all the deceptive adornments which have given a fictitious respectability to ingenious fraud, and a fatal popularity to adroit wickedness and splendid vice. Then shall men be judged, not by rank, or success, or achievement, but according to their works, as it is twice stated here, and according to whether they have any life towards God. The works and the life towards God must be combined. A man may have, from the activities of his Christian works, a name to live, and yet be dead: the life-book and the workbook combine to mark the real servant of Christ. If he labours more abundantly than all, it is Christ who works in him, for his life is a life by the faith of the Son of God. (Comp. Galatians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 15:10; James 2:14-26.)

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
(14, 15) And death and hell were cast . . .—Better, And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. The latter part of the verse contains, according to the best MS. authority, the additional words “the lake of fire.” We then read, not “This is the second death”—as though the reference were to what went before—but, This is the second death, the lake of fire. The last verse then follows, And if any was not found written in the book (or, roll) of life, he was cast into the lake of fire. Thus, three times in these two short verses, like a refrain at the close of each clause, we have the terrible words “the lake of fire.” Into this lake of fire Death and Hades are thrown. It is clearly figurative language, implying that Death, the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) is destroyed, together with Hades, who was personified as Death’s escort (Revelation 6:8). So we read in the next chapter (Revelation 21:4) “there shall be no more death.” The lake of fire into which Death is thrown is the second death! We have read of this before in this book (Revelation 2:11; Revelation 20:6). It is a death of which the first death—the physical death, now destroyed—was but a faint figure. It is a condition which needs no coarse exaggeration, or vulgar literalisation of the prophetic imagery, to heighten the horror of. Very awful is that spiritual death, which knows not and loves not God, and from which Christ has come to arouse us; more awful must be that second death, in which the spirit, no longer the sinning victim of hereditary evil, has become the victim of habitual choice of wrong, loving darkness rather than light, and choosing alienation rather than reconciliation—the husks of the swine rather than the Father’s house. Of the full meaning of the words in their true and future force we can have little conception. It is enough for us to remember two things: they are figurative, but they are figurative of something.

And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
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