Studies in Revelation—Lesson 31
by Reta Halteman Finger
In our last lesson, the Lamb and his bride were celebrating their marriage supper—and now in Revelation 19:11-16, a white horse appears to whisk them away so they can “live happily ever after”!
Oops, wrong story! This is not Cinderella—but if we stay with John’s visions long enough, we may eventually reach “happily ever after.” In the meantime, the plot thickens with seven more visions! Their symbols and allusions echo previous scenes to tie up loose ends and to create new puzzles and questions. Forget your calendars, wear your apocalyptic hats, and remember recapitulation from past lessons! Eugene Boring calls these seven visions “an eschatological tour through an art gallery in which God’s victory at the end of history is treated in seven different pictures.” Each is “complete in itself, with its own message and with little concern for chronology” (Revelation: Interpretation commentary, p. 195).
Up to this point, our author has organized his visions by sevens: seven letters to seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Now, from 19:11 to 21:1, John portrays seven more visions, though they are not numbered and are of uneven lengths. Each one begins with the words, “Then I saw…” or “I saw” in 19:11, 19:17; 19:19; 20:1, 20:4, 20:11, and 21:1. (Some commentaries calculate this slightly differently.)
A white horse and a “Faithful and True” Rider
For this lesson, we’ll stay with the first vision (19:11-16). After rejoicing in heaven in 19:1-10, John is apparently back on earth. But now, like the prophet Ezekiel, John sees heaven itself open up (Ezek.1:1)—not just a door, as in Revelation 4:1—to reveal a white horse! A white horse stands for conquering and victory, as we’ve seen in 6:2 with the Parthian archer, the enemy Rome feared most. But the rider on this horse comes in “righteousness” (justice) to judge and make war, and his name is “Faithful and True” (v. 11).
Using themes of righteous judging from Psalm 96:13 and Isaiah 11:4, John makes it clear that this Rider is Jesus, the incarnation of Yahweh. James Resseguie notes that this is the third major image of Christ in Revelation. The other two “are the ‘one like the son of man’ [or the Human One] in 1:13-20 and the slaughtered-yet-risen Lamb in 5:1-14” (The Revelation of John, p. 236).
Like the Human One in Revelation 1:14 and 2:18, this Rider has “eyes like a flame of fire” (19:12), an image originally drawn from Daniel 10:6. These eyes penetrate through layers of lies, deceptions, hoaxes, and “fake news” of the beast to reveal what is “True”—like the second half of his name (Rev.19:11).
The “many diadems” on the Rider’s head denote that he is king of more than one country (Metzger, p. 91). The term “diadem” (Gr. diadēma) occurs only three times in the New Testament (Rev. 12:3; 13:1; 19:12) and refers to royal crowns that in this apocalypse are worn only by the main antagonists and protagonist. (Lesser crowns are “wreaths” [Gr. stephanos] worn by the saints [2:10; 3:11] and elders [4:4, 10] and others; Resseguie, p. 237). The Rider’s diadems underscore the other name on his robe and thigh: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16). He also “has a name that no one knows but himself” (v. 12). Ted Grimsrud suggests that this may refer to the fact that Jesus “transcends all human understanding” (Triumph of the Lamb, p. 149).
So far this picture sounds quite militaristic. Is this really Jesus, the nonviolent, slaughtered Lamb? But watch how John deconstructs this warrior image. The Rider is wearing a robe dipped in blood (v. 13), but since no battle has yet occurred, the blood can only be his own. Even though a sharp sword (v. 15) comes from his mouth, we have already learned in Revelation 1:16 that this sword, his only weapon, stands for his words, which can be as sharp and piercing as his eyes. Indeed, his additional name in 19:13 is “The Word of God.” In just and righteous judgment, the Rider expresses God’s word and will.
What about the “armies of heaven” that crowd the scene? Although they also ride on white horses, they carry no swords and wear pure, white linen instead of armor (v. 14). With his words alone, the Rider “will strike down the nations and…rule them with a rod of iron” (v. 15). But, as the NRSV footnotes, the word “rule” is more literally translated “shepherd” (Gr. poimainei), a term that turns the more violent “rod of iron” of Psalm 2:9 on its head.
Eugene Boring calls attention to the second part of Revelation 19:15, which speaks of treading the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God. The verb “tread” is present tense, not future tense as in the NRSV (Gr. patei) (Boring, p. 196). The Rider is treading the wine press of his own crucifixion, where his robe becomes red with his own blood. This contrasts with John’s allusion to Isaiah 63:2-3, where the speaker treads a wine press and enemy blood spatters over his robe.
Along with other commentators I have read, I am convinced that John’s theology, as a whole, calls for the deconstructed interpretation explained in this lesson. John “uses the ancient form of portraying the ultimate victory of God as winning a great battle in which those who have resisted God are slaughtered” says Eugene Boring. “But he fills this with new content.” Instead, “the Christ, the triumphant military king, is Jesus, the crucified man of Nazareth, who was crucified not as preliminary to his victory but as his victory” (Pp. 196-97).
The next few lessons will continue with these visions so full of symbols and allusions to Hebrew prophets that we need to absorb them slowly.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- Do you agree that Jesus’s crucifixion was a victory in itself, or should it be viewed as victory only in light of his resurrection?
- Do you think the “armies of heaven” (14) are angels, or are they human Christians who have also died for their faith, as did Jesus?
- Military imagery is very masculine. Do the radical reversals in this vision render it sufficiently gender-inclusive?
- Bruce Metzger says of this text, “All this is symbolism at its highest. No one imagines that such statements are literal. Never shall we see the ‘white horse’ or the sword projecting from the mouth of the conqueror” (Breaking the Code, 91). Do you agree?
Boring, Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. John Knox Press, 1989. Pp. 195-197.
Grimsrud, Ted. Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987. P. 149.
Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Augsburg Press, 1993. P. 91.
Resseguie, James L. The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009. Pp. 236-237.