Reading through the book of Revelation can seem like an overwhelming task! That is because much of Revelation is descriptions of visions, with those visions symbolizing certain truths. We are not used to the truths of Scripture being symbolized in word-pictures. If we will let the context define the vision/symbol, we will gain much understanding!
A Beast with Seven Heads
We are going to see this explained as we look at an example from Revelation 13 where it speaks of a beast coming up out of the sea and describes its appearance and character.
“And the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore.
Then I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and on his horns were ten diadems, and on his heads were blasphemous names. And the beast which I saw was like a leopard, and his feet were like those of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. And the dragon gave him his power and his throne and great authority.” Revelation 13:1-2 NASB
The first thing we want to identify is the beast. Who or what is it? Is it literal/figurative? To answer these, we must go back to the Old Testament book of Daniel where beasts are first spoken of. Daniel 7:17 says, “These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings who will arise from the earth.” According to Daniel, beasts are kings. But each king also represents an entire kingdom because Daniel 7:23 says the fourth beast will be a fourth kingdom.
So these four beasts that Daniel is speaking of were not simply kings, but kingdoms. Particularly, history tells us they were Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome, the four earthly kingdoms that were the enemies of God’s people. We can conclude that at any point in time a king/head signifies a kingdom/empire. Or to say it another way, kingdoms can be expressed as having one representative head/king.
So, a beast is a king, and a king is a kingdom. Therefore, the beast in Revelation 13 is some kind of kingdom (empire).
Side note: some of the descriptive terms given in Revelation 13 of this one beast also incorporate certain aspects of the first three beasts in Daniel 7. This is quite interesting. You can learn more about Daniel 7 in Prophecies Concerning the Final World Kingdom Yet to Be Fulfilled.
The next point we want to look at here is that this beast of Revelation 13 comes up out of the sea. What could this possibly mean? Is it speaking of a literal sea?
With our modern technology, we can see satellite pictures of the beautiful geography of the world’s oceans, seas, lakes and rivers from space. We have both “from afar” pictures, as well as “up close and personal” pictures taken from deep sea vessels. Such pictures help us view an incredible story of the Creator. For ancient mariners though, the seas were both a very deep and potentially violent place. They reported their findings to the people of their homelands. At least, the ones who made it back safely. Thus, the sea represented something deadly and unknown to them.
Therefore, probably the best way to view the ‘beast coming up out of the sea’ is this: a world empire that, from its ancient perspective, would come up out of an “unknown and mysterious” place.
We need to add even a bit more information now because the text also states that this beast has “seven heads.” Again, are they literal or figurative? What do they represent? For this, we need to look at Revelation 17:8-13 which talks about the same beast.
“The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast that he was and is not and will come. 9 Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, 10 and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while. 11 The beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction. 12 The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. 13 These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast.”
This particular vision is given to the Apostle John towards the end of the first century at the time when God’s people were ruled by their enemy, the Roman Empire. Notice in verse 10, the beast’s seven heads are identified as seven kings. Again, these would be the representative heads of seven kingdoms.
Each of the seven heads of this beast can be identified. To make it easier, we’ll go in reverse order. It says ‘one is yet to come’, ‘one is’ which is Rome (the empire at time of the writing of Revelation), and five have already fallen. As mentioned earlier, the kingdoms of Greece, Medo-Persia, and Babylon came prior to the kingdom of Rome. That leaves us with two kingdoms before Babylon. It is quite easy to determine these two from the Old Testament. Major world empires that persecuted Abraham and his descendants would be both Egypt and Assyria. So, in order, it looks like this:
7. One Yet to Come – Final Kingdom
The first five kingdoms already came and went as “beasts” over God’s people. They reigned over/persecuted the people of God in history. The sixth one, Rome, not only was responsible for crucifying Jesus, but according to tradition, put both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul to death and persecuted many more. And the seventh one, the ‘beast from the sea’ is a kingdom in the future (our present or possibly near future?). It is the final kingdom that is “representative” of the six earlier beasts in that they persecuted God’s people. We know that this beast will directly persecute God’s people from the following text:
“It was also given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them, and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him.” Revelation 13:7 NASB