THE “KINGS OF THE EARTH” IN REVELATION (1)

PMW 2019-100 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In his exalted praise of Christ John declares that he is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5) In contrast to the rest of the NT where it only occurs twice (Mt 17:25; Ac 4:26), the phrase “the kings of the earth” (ho archōn tōn basileōn tēs gēs) appears rather frequently in Rev. It appears eight times in all, with six of those being in the last five chapters (after the drama has built and all of the characters are in place): 1:5; 6:15; 17:2, 18; 18:3, 9; 19:19; 21:24. Here at 1:5 as John continues his opening comments of Revelation, he only quickly mentions these kings while praising Christ.

But who are these “kings of the earth” that are subject to Christ?

Rev generally presents these kings in a bad light, except in 1:5 and 21:24 where they are more-or-less neutral. They play an evil role by opposing Christ and his people. They “committed acts of immorality” with the Babylonian harlot (17:1–2; 18:3, 9) being themselves subjects of the harlot (17:18). None of this interpretive information, however, is available in the current context at 1:5, however. In fact, none of this begins to unfold until five chapters later (at 6:15). Who are these “kings of the earth” over whom Christ rules?

Most commentators view “the kings of the earth” as either first-century rulers of “the nations who have entered into illicit relations with Rome” (Mounce 309). Or more generally as all political rulers — including Rome’s emperors — throughout the history of the Christian Church (Swete 7; Caird 16; Beasley-Murray 56; Aune 41; Beale 850; Kistemaker 83, 460; Smalley 35, 169).

It is certainly true that given John’s high christology he sees Jesus as the ruler over all the kings of the whole world until the end of history. This is Jesus’ reward from God the Father for his redemptive work involving death, burial, and resurrection (cp. Eph 1:20–21; Php 2:9–10; Matt 28:18). This glorious redemptive truth certainly plays an important role in the immediate context (1:5b, d, 18) just as it does throughout Rev (e.g., 2:8; 5:6, 9–10; 7:9–10, 14; 11:8; 12:11; 13:8). His redemptive kingship later leads John to declare him “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16; cp. 17:14).

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Nevertheless, this general, global interpretation of Christ’s sovereignty over all earthly kings does not seem to be John’s point regarding his use of the phrase “kings of the earth” as they will soon be fitted into his drama. A clearer understanding of the specific role and function of these kings awaits fuller revelation later as the drama unfolds.

Though a cursory reading of the phrase “kings of the earth” might slip past us as involving an obvious, almost mundane meaning, Rev is not always so obvious. John is writing an apocalyptically-charged, forensically-framed drama. In such a work we should not be surprised to be surprised. Furthermore, his work is highly structured, tightly unified, and thoroughly integrated. One characteristic of his careful literary method is proleptic anticipation. For instance, in 2:28 we read of the “morning star” which is not defined until near the end of the book at 22:16.

In Rev 11:7 he suddenly presents “the beast” arising from the abyss — even though he has not mentioned him before, does not define him at that point, and will not formally introduce him until 13:1. In 14:8 an angel declares “fallen, fallen is Babylon the great” — though we have not heard of Babylon before and will not hear that name again until 16:19. In 19:7–9 John states that the Lamb’s bride has made herself ready — though he has never mentioned her and will not introduce her until 21:1. Now regarding these “kings of the earth” I would argue that John also appears to be engaging in proleptic anticipation. They appear ex abrupto with the definite article as if we are already familiar with them. Prigent (86) notes that prolepsis and analepsis are “well known to story tellers from the dawn of time.”

Furthermore, we can allow for this proleptic appearance for two other reasons:

(1) John writes the book after receiving the visions, so that he has the basic story already in mind when he begins writing. For instance, on another verse Lupieri (124) notes that “on the one hand, when John was writing the initial messages he had in mind not only the general plan but the details of the entire work, and that, on the other hand, he sometimes waits until the very last lines of the book explain a mysterious phrase that appeared earlier.”


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(2) John appears to write Rev with a view to its being carefully read and meticulously studied. Again Lupieri (13) states an important reality: “A superficial reader or hearer, for instance, who did not reflect on the text at length, would not notice that it contains seven blessings, but since this very probably has symbolic value, it must be the case that the text requires in-depth study as well as superficial reading.”

Since they appear so many times in Rev, these “kings of the earth” become an important character-set with a specific function in the drama. As Stuart (2:25) observes on 1:5: “in our text the kings of the earth are named, because a contest with them is disclosed in the sequel of the book, and the victory and supremacy over them are exhibited.”

Join me in my next study as I continue an investigation into Revelation’s “kings of the earth.”

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