I have addressed in the past the sad tendency of Christian interpreters to overlook Israel in the book of Revelation: here, here, and here. It is a sad hermeneutic that can ignore the central narrative thread of the Bible (blessing to the world through the chosen descendants of Abraham) and choose instead strange allegories to replace the traditions of Israel’s prophets.
The way I read Revelation, and I think it makes a lot of sense, is as a widening of the prophetic tradition of Israel. For the congregations of Asia Minor, Revelation is a vision of final judgment and the world to come that focuses on the place of the nations alongside Israel. This theme was not absent in the Israelite prophets, but in Revelation the role of the nations gets more attention in keeping with the audience. And the vision of men like Isaiah and Amos is updated in light of the knowledge of Yeshua of Nazareth, now ascended and returned to his glorious place as Messiah and Lord.
I am returning to the theme of lamenting the loss of Israel in Christian readings of Revelation because in my work I have now come across another example. As in the past, I am primarily calling out Grant Osborne on this issue. Though I have worked my way through half a dozen commentaries on Revelation, there is something about Osborne’s I particularly admire. He is a good exegete. Yet somehow, amid all the details, I would say he has forgotten about Israel.
Revelation 11 is a good example, because it is one of those texts which includes Israel for an audience that does not need to be told repeatedly: the center of the final judgment is Jerusalem as the armies of the nations march down from Armageddon (the hill of Megiddo) against the holy city. Revelation 11 speaks in comprehensible but understated images about this, as if expecting the audience to be very familiar with the narrative already. And yet the narrative of this eschatological battle is sadly forgotten or cast aside.
Revelation 11:1-2 and Gruesome War
In a scene reminiscent of Ezekiel 40-42 and Zechariah 2, we read, “Rise and measure the temple of God” (Rev. 11:1). This is a common technique for John, taking up a scene from the prophetic literature and giving it a new twist. The Temple measured in Zechariah was the Second Temple and the theme was God’s protection. The Temple in Ezekiel was the Third Temple in the time of the Messianic Age, and the theme was its glory. John’s theme is the Third Temple in a time of war, before its glory.
Further, Revelation 11 describes the situation in this Temple future: “it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months” (11:2). Only the inner courts will be protected, while from the outside the city will be beaten down with gruesome war.
A Muted Reading
It is strange to read the comments of Grant Osborne about all this and not a little frustrating:
Since the imagery throughout the book is of a heavenly temple, it is difficult to conceive how this could refer to a literal temple on earth. Therefore, this is the church, primarily the saints of this final period, but secondarily the church of all ages (as argued throughout this commentary).
And Osborne is consistent throughout his commentary in interpreting every image of Israel as non-literal. The 144,000 from the twelve tribes in Revelation 7 are Christians, not Jews. The woman who gives birth to the Messiah in Revelation 12 is the last days church, not Israel.
And now we are told that the Temple which the Gentiles trample is not the Temple, but the church. And Armageddon is no more, but only a figure for opposition to the church. Indeed, even in Revelation 16:16, where Armageddon gets its name, Osborne says:
The natural meaning from the Hebrew would be “mountain of Megiddo,” but there is no Mount Megiddo. . . . a general reference is intended . . . . those who stand against God.
Revelation Taking Up Israel’s Prophets
It is common for Revelation to take up the words of Israel’s prophets and use them in new ways, adding dimensions from the greater knowledge of Messiah and the inclusion of the nations. It is not Revelation’s tendency to negate the prophetic traditions.
There is a strong tradition in Israel that the final battle before the Messianic Age will be the nations of the world attacking Jerusalem (Armageddon).
In particular there are two texts famously about the arrival of the Days of Messiah and equally about the Armageddon that precedes them.
Joel 3 describes the beautiful Days of Messiah, when “Jerusalem will be holy” and the “mountains will drip sweet wine.” Yet before that, God will call the armies of the nations into a valley called Jehoshaphat (“the Lord judges”). He will put in the sickle and reap a grim harvest from those who attack the holy city. All this will happen before God returns to dwelling “in Zion, my holy mountain.”
Zechariah 12-14 are even more explicit. It is hard to deny that Zechariah describes the Messianic Age. He speaks of the Lord God coming, and all his holy one with him, the Lord standing on the Mount of Olives and splitting it in two, of everything being holy in that age, and so on.
Also, in this strange yet beautiful prophecy are two foretellings of Israel’s renewal in the last days. In one such foretelling, the besieged Jerusalemites look upon the “pierced one” and mourn (12:10). In another, a fountain is opened for Jerusalem and Judah to cleanse them from all sin (13:1).
And what precedes this glory? There is a terrible war in which Jerusalem becomes odious to her neighbors, and all the armies of the nations are gathered against Jerusalem to battle, and the Lord “will smite all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem.” Armageddon.
Revelation 11 and Armageddon
Revelation 11 is a preview, part of an interlude looking ahead to the final events of the age. It describes in passing a trampling of Jerusalem by the Gentiles, an event which occurs more specifically at a later point, in Revelation 16.
Does it make sense to allegorize all of this? Should we, like Osborne, read the Temple described here as a figure for the church? How is it that the church is trampled by the Gentiles?
I am arguing that it makes more sense to see Revelation picking up a prophetic tradition of Israel than to imagine the Apocalypse of final things ignoring what has come before. It doesn’t seem at all a stretch to imagine John recasting the vision of Joel and Zechariah.