“THE KINGS OF THE EARTH” AND JOHN’S METHOD (6)

PMW 2020-001 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

This is my sixth installment of a study on the phrase “the kings of the earth’ in Revelation. This important designation needs to be understood properly in order to grasp the meaning of Revelation’s judgments. In this study I will consider John’sInterpretive Method.

I have already pointed out the broad scholarly consensus that John draws very largely from the OT as his primary source. Now I would like to briefly focus on how he employs his OT sources. This will be abundantly illustrated in the commentary, but here I will summarize two particular literary methods he uses. These are important for identifying the “kings of the earth.” The two methods upon which I will focus are: scriptural re-application and rhetorical irony.

Scriptural Re-application
Understanding how John employs the OT is important in that even though “allusions and echoes are found in almost every verse of the book” he “seldom quotes the OT directly” and has “no formal quotations” whatsoever (Beale and Carson 2007:1081, 1082). The reason he never formally cites the OT appears to be that he is presenting his work as a prophecy (1:3; 22:7, 10), in which he is taking up the prophetic mantle and intentionally mimicking OT prophetic language as he speaks of Israel’s coming judgment. Mazzaferri (379) is surely correct in noting that John “archaises his style to mimic classical biblical Hebrew” in order to reinforce his identity “as a prophet in classical OT style.”


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John is not so much presenting fulfillments of OT prophecies — this is why he never directly cites them. Rather he is adapting them for and re-applying them to new circumstances. Though Beale and Carson (2007:1087) argue that “prophecies from the OT are fulfilled in Revelation” they admit that the various OT prophecies “may be fulfilled in various ways” including their being subjected to “creative changes” (1085) and even being “creatively reworked and applied.” Indeed, “there is unanimous consensus that John uses the OT with a high degree of liberty and creativity” (Beale 81).

Regarding John’s tendency to adaptation, Mulholland (1990:342) well notes:

The reality of his vision, therefore, was both experienced and conveyed through the matrix of language, myths, and symbols that were drawn primarily from the image pool of the Old Testament and intertestamental Judaism. . . . Frequently the language, images, and even literary forms are ‘bent out of shape’ in the service of an experience that transcends the limits of the old frames of reference. The reality that John experienced was only shadowed or intimated by much of his prevailing image pool. Thus John combined old images and symbols in new ways in order to express the depths of the reality that he experienced. The old images, myths, and symbols have become flexible and polyvalent in the service of a multifaceted visionary experience. Yet they have retained enough of their meaning to be significant aids in understanding what John is conveying.

As Corsini (88, 104) states of John, “his usual method” is to “take a passage in its original meaning, and then deepen it, altering it as he uses it.”

Consequently, Rev’s OT allusions frequently refer to something other than that of which the prophets originally spoke. For instance, both “Egypt” and “Babylon” have concrete historical meanings in the OT. Yet John uses these OT villains in Rev, maintaining their evil character while reapplying their historical meaning. Thus, Jerusalem, the placed where the Lord was crucified is mystically called “Egypt” in 11:8. In the commentary I will argue that Babylon also represents Jerusalem, in that she appears in high-priestly attire in 17:4–5 and is distinguished from “the cities of the nations” in 16:19. This suggests that John may even use other OT personnel and nations in a new, dramatic way. It allows that his references to the “kings of the earth” may have a very different meaning than its use in the OT. Indeed, I am arguing that he actually applies this phrase to Israel’s religious aristocracy rather than to the kings of the Gentile nations.

This creative use of the OT allows John to powerfully employ a second literary device: rhetorical irony.

Rhetorical irony
Irony is an inescapable and widely recognized factor in Rev’s drama. John engages in “remarkable symbolic transformations” in that he “completely reverses the value of certain symbols of power and conquest by transforming them into images of suffering and weakness” (Barr 1984:41). The most dramatic example of this is the slain Lamb presented as the ultimate victor (5:6, 12; 17:14). Along these lines we also see robes being washed and made white in blood (7:14), Christians overcoming through the blood of the Lamb (12:11), and being blessed by dying (14:13). Other transformations include the angel of the church of Sardis having “a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (3:1), a lion that appears as a lamb (5:5), men asking mountains and rocks to fall on them to hide them (6:16a), a lamb that exercises wrath (6:16b), another lamb that speaks as a dragon (13:11), and much, much more.


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Rev’s irony can also involve a surprising re-application of OT texts or phrases that originally applied to one thing, but now apply to the opposite. For instance, Beale and Carson (2007: 1087) note regarding Rev 3:9 that “promises given to Israel, who are prophesied to be persecuted by the nations, are now ironically applied to and understood to be fulfilled in Gentile believers persecuted by Israel.” Of this passage Beale (94) writes that it:

refers to Isaianic prophecies that the Gentiles will come and bow down before Israel and recognize Israel as God’s chosen people (Isa. 45:14; 49:23; 60:14). This Jewish hope has been turned upside down. Now it is the Jewish persecutors of Christians whom God will make to submit to the church. This reversal of Isaiah’s language is probably a conscious attempt to express the irony that the submission that unbelieving ethnic Jews hoped to receive from Gentiles, they themselves will be forced to render to the church. John concludes that ethnic Jews have become like unbelieving Gentiles because of their rejection of Christ and persecution of Christians.

Many commentators agree with such an analysis of 3:9 (e.g., Hort 35; Swete 55; Caird 53; Kistemaker 161; Smalley 91; Osborne 191).

This ironic reversal does not simply occur at 3:9, for Beale (95) speaks of several of John’s OT allusions as often involving “retributive ironies” that turn the tables on the enemies of God’s people. He sees such polemical irony at work in numerous passages in Rev, including 12:4, 9 (cf. Da 8:10), 5:6–7 (cf. Da 7:7ff), 13:7–8 (cf. Da 7:14), 13:14 (cf. Ex 3:14). This practice is even followed by the Essenes at Qumran who separate themselves from Israel and her corrupt priestly establishment. For instance, Provan (93) notes that in 4QpNah the writer “has accommodated the whole test of Nahum to Jerusalem (‘Nineveh’), indicating the way in which even texts that did not originally concern faithless Israel could be read as if they did.”

This practice is important in that often in the LXX the phrase “kings of the earth” refers to leaders of Gentile peoples beyond Israel’s borders (1Ki 4:34; 10:23; 2Ch 9:23; Ps 148:11; Isa 24:21; Lam 4:12). In fact, John’s primary source here is Ps 89:27: “I also shall make him My first-born, / The highest of the kings of the earth.” I am suggesting that John adopts this phrase that is used in the OT of God’s and Israel’s Gentile enemies and turns it — by ironic re-application — against the first-century Jews, applying this evil image to their own religious leaders.

This irony appears in Lam 4:12 which mentions the “kings of the earth” in an especially relevant way: “The kings of the earth did not believe, / Nor did any of the inhabitants of the world, / That the adversary and the enemy / Could enter the gates of Jerusalem.” Jerusalem was deemed impregnable by the kings of the earth, but they besieged and conquered it. In Rev John will be re-casting these “kings of the earth” as Jewish religious authorities who will witness the final destruction of Jerusalem.

When John employs ironic reversal he is following the example of the OT prophets. For instance, in Isa 1:10 Isaiah writes: “Hear the word of the Lord, / You rulers of Sodom; / Give ear to the instruction of our God, / You people of Gomorrah.” Isaiah does this because rebellious Israel displays their sin like Sodom (Isa 3:9; cp. Eze 16:49). We see this in Jesus’ own denunciation of Jewish cities when he compares them with Sodom (Mt 10:15; 11:23). In fact, this re-application of “the kings of the earth” follows the apostolic church’s practice (which includes John himself, Ac 4:13, 19) of ironic re-application of Ps 2. In Acts 4:26–27 “the kings of the earth” include “both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” (Ac 4:26–27) (see discussion of Ac 4 below).

Interestingly, throughout his Gospel John repeatedly records Jesus being called the “King of the Jews” (18:33, 39; 18:33, 39;19:3, 14, 19, 21) or “the King of Israel” (Jn 1:49; 12:13). When Pilate offers to release him as “the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:14), the Jews vehemently reject that offer declaring that they want no king but Caesar (Jn 19:12, 15). Rev will show how her religious aristocracy sold out to Caesar in rejecting their true Messiah (see discussion in Rev 13:11ff and Rev 17:5ff). Though Israel rejects Christ in deference to Caesar, Jesus ironically becomes the ruler of the “kings of the earth,” the leaders of Israel. John makes this very point here at 1:5 in his introduction. Indeed, Christ is even Caesar’s ruler in that he is the “King of kings” (17;14; 19:16).

I will continue this study in my next installment. Stay tuned!

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