Commentary on Revelation 19 (Battle of Armageddon)

The preceding chapters of Revelation describe the great suffering that the children of God would suffer due to the evil actions of Satan, the antichrist (the beast), and the false prophet. The beast represents anti-Christian political power, and the false prophet represents anti-Christian religion. Some writers have referred to these three as the false trinity.

The Old Testament writers promised that God would defeat evil in a final battle (see Isa. 13:4; 31:4; Ezek. 38–39; Joel 3; Zech. 14:3). The New Testament writers understood Jesus Christ to be the one appointed by God to subjugate evil (see Matt. 13:41–42; 25:41; Rom. 2:5; 2 Thess. 1:7; 2:8). When Jesus returns to the earth at his Second Coming, his first act will be to conquer those who oppose God and His people. These events are described in Revelation 19, starting in verse 11.

In verses 11-13, John sees heaven open up and a rider on a white horse coming forth. It is clear from John’s description that the rider is none other than Jesus Christ! His mission is to judge and make war against the enemies of God. George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, explains the OT background of John’s description of Jesus:

The most vivid prophetic picture is that of an unnamed conqueror who strides forth in crimsoned garments for vindication, who had trodden the wine press of God’s wrath and stained his garments with his enemies’ blood, who trod the hostile peoples in his wrath and established the day of vengeance (Isa. 63:1–6). John sees Christ coming as a conquering warrior in bloodstained garments, destroying all hostile and opposing powers with his mighty sword.

The armies of heaven, dressed in white robes and also riding white horses, follow Jesus (white is the symbol of victory). This army is most likely a combination of angels and deceased believers. Since their robes are not stained with blood, the implication is that they will only watch the battle and not participate.

John sees a sword coming from Jesus’ mouth, symbolizing his judgment and execution of justice. Ladd explains the sword imagery:

The only weapon involved in the warfare is the word of Christ. This language looks back to Isa. 11:4: ‘And he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.’ Here is a symbolic representation of victory by the power of a word which is impossible to be literally envisaged. The idea goes back to creation. God created the worlds by his word. He spoke and it was done. This creation was mediated through the living word, Christ (John 1:3; Heb. 1:2). The judgment on the old order will also be mediated through the word of Christ. Just how John visualized this victory is impossible to say. It is, however, certain that he expected actual objective events to occur which would transform the structure of human society, purging out the evil.

Jesus will make the wrath of God known to the persecutors of His children. Even though the beast (antichrist) has set himself up as a world leader and has convinced other political leaders to follow him, the reader understands that there is only one real power in the universe, Jesus Christ, who is King of kings and Lord of lords. Upon Jesus’ return, the whole world will finally understand who is in charge.

Earlier in chapter 19, John wrote about the marriage supper of the Lamb, where the redeemed in Christ will celebrate their victory in Jesus, the Lamb of God. Verses 17-21 describe a second supper, but in this supper, those arrayed against God will be the meal, and the birds of the air will be the ones eating the meal. This image, though grotesque, is a metaphor for God’s total victory over evil, and it is firmly rooted in the OT. Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides background:

There will be two great messianic banquets at the eschaton: the feast with the Lamb for the saints and the feast on the sinners for the carrion birds. The saints will partake of the great banquet, and the sinners will be the great banquet! This image is drawn from Ezek. 39:17–20, where the judgment against Gog is punctuated by an invitation to the birds and wild animals to ‘come together’ for ‘the great sacrifice on the mountains of Israel,’ where they will ‘eat the flesh of mighty men and drink the blood of the princes of the earth.’ The difference is that in Ezekiel the call to the scavengers comes after the defeat and burial of Gog, while here it comes before those events. This gives the scene great rhetorical power.

John sees the armies of the beast and his allies ready to battle the rider on the white horse. These verses are a continuation of the narrative from Revelation 16:13-16, where the false trinity prepares for the battle of Armageddon.

Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty. ‘Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed.’ Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

John’s vision, however, only records the aftermath and not the battle itself. First, the beast and his false prophet are captured and thrown into the lake of fire where they suffer eternally. Second, the kings and armies aligned with the beast are all killed by the sword from Jesus’ mouth. Just like that, the battle is over. Osborne traces the possible source of the phrase “lake of fire,” which only occurs here in the NT:

Bertrand (1999) says the origin of the ‘lake of fire’ comes from a combination of two images, with the ‘fire’ stemming from traditions regarding the destruction of Sodom by fire and sulfur (Gen. 19:24 = Luke 17:29–30; 1 Enoch 21.7–10; 67.4–13; 90.25) and the ‘lake’ stemming from Hellenistic mythical portrayals of hell. The basic connection with ‘Gehenna,’ of course, is certain. ‘Sheol’ (OT) or ‘Hades’ (NT) refers to the grave, while ‘Gehenna’ refers to eternal fiery punishment. The name Gehenna derived originally from the Valley of Hinnom on the south slope of Jerusalem, which became notorious during the evil reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, when their own children were burned as sacrifices to the god Molech (2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6). It was condemned and became a symbol for future punishment (Isa. 66:24; Jer. 7:30–33). Thus, ‘Gehenna’ symbolized the place of final punishment, located in the depths of the earth (Sib. Or. 4.184–86) and associated with eternal torment (Sib. Or. 2.292–310). In Jesus’ day it was the city dump, and the fires never went out due to the burning garbage. In Jesus’ teaching, Gehenna was also the symbol for eternal fiery punishment (Mark 9:43, 45, 47 par.; Matt. 10:28 par.; 18:9; 23:15; cf. 25:46). Thus, the idea of final fiery punishment has a rich history behind it (see Lunde, DJG 310–11).

Many people have pointed out that God’s destruction of the armies of mankind arrayed against Him seem inconsistent with His compassion. Osborne deals with this accusation:

How can a compassionate God do such a thing? Yet such a question forgets that Yahweh is at one and the same time a God of love and a holy God of justice. To ask the question is to ignore the devastating consequences of sin. We must remember the number of times in the book God has offered them forgiveness if they were to repent, yet they again and again refused God’s offer (9:20–21; 14:6–7; 16:8, 10–11) and preferred to worship the very demons who hated them (9:1–21). They preferred the delusion to the truth. It is a holy God who must eradicate sin in order to inaugurate the perfect reality for which he had created humankind in the first place.