PMW 2019-101 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
In my last article I began a series aimed at analyzing the identity of the recurring “kings of the earth” in Revelation. A proper identity of this set of rulers is important for understanding Revelation’s message. So now let me return to my analysis.
Rev is filled with kings. Elsewhere we read of other kings who are described differently. For instance, in 10:11 John is re-commissioned to prophesy, and the re-commissioning is expanded to include his prophesying regarding nations and “kings” (he has already prophesied about this special group known as “the kings of the earth,” 6:15). We hear also of “the kings from the east” (16:12) (which statement itself necessarily distinguishes them from other kings) and the “kings of the whole world” (16:14) who gather at the battle of Har Magedon. We read of the “seven kings” specifically tied to the beast (17:10) who are distinguished from the “ten kings” who will “hate the harlot and will make her desolate” (17:12, 16).
We will see “kings” who are defeated at the climactic battle by the King of kings (19:18), this probably refers to a larger array of “kings” (under the control of the beast) which also includes our smaller subset, “the kings of the earth” (19:19). In addition to these human kings, in 9:11 Satan appears as the “king” of the (demonic) locusts from the abyss. Ultimately in Rev, God himself is praised as the exalted “King of the nations” (15:3). And the Lamb is the “King of kings” (17:14; 19:16; cp. 11:15; 12:10), which involves not just his being the King of the “kings of the earth,” but being the King of all kings. And though Christians are not directly called “kings,” John states that they are formed into a kingdom (1:6, 9) and will reign (5:10; 20:4, 6).
Standard Bearer: Festschrift for Greg Bahnsen (ed. by Steve Schlissel)
Includes two chapters by Gentry on Revelation and theonomy. Also chapters on apologetics, politics, ecclesiology, covenant, and more.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
In that John frequently mentions “the kings of the earth” later and in that he offers no explanatory material at their first mention, proleptic anticipation seems to be at work in 1:5. Though this mundane phrase does not involve perplexing apocalyptic imagery, we will discover that this set of kings plays a distinctive role in Rev that will only become clear as the story unfolds and the characters are more fully developed. Of course, John’s original audience is already experiencing problems with ruling authorities and destructive persecution in general (e.g., 1:9; 2:13). So even though lacking a fuller description of the specific role of these characters, his original audience will at least be able to grasp an important, general point: Jesus Christ rules even earthly kings — whoever they may be.
Thus, John’s point here is not to define the role of “the kings of the earth” for his drama, but simply to proleptically introduce them in his praising Christ as the ultimate ruler even of kings. He will soon begin building the drama — and developing his characters. When these evil “kings of the earth” finally appear in full character, John’s audience will already know that Jesus is their ultimate sovereign. Furthermore, we should understand that first-century Christians have long been locked in a struggle for survival against strong Jewish opposition headed up by the sanhedrin and high priestly aristocracy (e.g., Ac 9:1–2; 22:4–5; 26:9–11). And this happens to be the experience also among the seven churches as at least two of them are combating “the synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9).
Before the seven churches to whom John writes hear Rev, the public reader (1:3) will have already read the whole book and reflected on it. Consequently, he might even alert his hearers to where John is heading with this designation, just as the revelatory angel explains things to John from time-to-time (7:13–17; 17:7–9). In fact, given the liturgical setting of Rev, he might even more fully explain who these kings are, as he teaches and exhorts (cp. Lk 4:16–21; 1Ti 4:13), just as a preacher today reads the Bible and explains it.
As I will argue in this series, John’s “kings of the earth” are a particular set of kings. As per his storyline which he develops later, they represent Jerusalem’s religious aristocracy which is intimately associated with the temple system. And the members of this class of religious rulers are historically integrated with the sanhedrin, Israel’s high court. Though the exact structure and membership of the first-century Jewish sanhedrin is unclear, we may generally surmise it composition: “The high priest presided over this sanhedrin, and its members included the chief priests, elders, scribes, and other members, presumably leading citizens (Mark 15:1)” (ABD 5:976). These socially-prominent, financially-endowed, politically-influential men govern Israel’s religious and cultural life and are important expressions of Israel’s political power under Rome.
Four Views on the Book of Revelation
(ed. by Marvin Pate)
Helpful presentation of four approaches to Revelation. Ken Gentry writes the chapter on the preterist approach to Revelation, which provides a 50 page survey of Revelation .
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
This view of the “kings of the earth” is not widely held — even among preterists. Nevertheless, several preterist interpreters do hold this interpretation. Some of these see this identity in only one or two places in Rev, allowing other applications of the phrase elsewhere — much like the multivalent use of “the Jews” in John’s Gospel. A few, though see the phrase maintained as a technical term throughout. A list of those who see these kings as Jewish religious authorities, at least in some places in Rev, include: Stuart (165), Russell (399, 400, 494–95), Terry (435), Carrington (138, 277, 291), Beagley (44), Chilton (198), Leonard (53), Van de Water (257), and Smolarz (316). Some of these scholars include also the more secular, purely political authorities in Israel, such as the local Herods and the Roman procurator Pilate.
Samples of this Israel-oriented interpretation include the following. Regarding 6:15 Beagley (44) states that our phrase “could alternatively be translated: ‘the rulers of the land [i.e., Palestine].’” Stuart (165–66) writes of this verse that the plural for “kings” (of the earth“) is used “in order to designate the various governors or viceroys who then ruled over the country of Judea.” Carrington (138) argues that “the phrase kings of the earth, which is used here, can equally well be translated rulers of the land, and it is only the rulers of Israel who would fear the Great Glory on his Throne.” Of 17:2 Terry (1885:478–79) states that these kings are “not of the earth . . . but of the land,” i.e., the land of Israel. Van de Water (257) applies this interpretation widely in Rev, noting for instance regarding 17:2: “That the biblical expression ‘kings of the land’ (17.2) could be taken in reference to the rulers in Palestine, moreover, is argued by Acts 4.26, where it is interpreted as designating Herod and Pilate” (see also p. 260).
But now why should we hold that John is referring to Israel’s religious aristocracy when he employs the phrase “the kings of the earth”?
I will continue this line of inquiry in my next article. I hope you will join me once again.