Angel With The Key

Commentary on Revelation 20:1-6


20 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

The Judgment of Satan and the completed Triumph of the Righteous

CONTENTS. It is unnecessary to say anything of the difficulties attending the interpretation of the passage upon which we now enter, or to bespeak the indulgence of the reader. Let it be enough in the meantime to observe that the description of the Victory and Rest of the people of God is continued. The paragraph connects itself closely with chap. 19, and ought not to be separated from it.

Ver. 1. And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain upon his hand.

We have here the second angel after the appearance of the Lord Himself at chap. 19:11. This angel comes down ‘out of heaven.’ commissioned therefore by God, and clothed with His power. He has the key of the ‘abyss,’ which can be no other than that of chaps. 9:1, 2, 11:7, and 17:8. It is the abode of Satan, the home and source of all evil. It has a key, and this key is in the hands of Christ (comp. chap. 1:18). By Him it is entrusted to the angel for the execution of His purposes. At chap. 9:2 the angel opened the abyss; here he locks it. In addition to the key the angel has a great chain upon his hand, i.e. hanging over his open hand and dropping down on either side. The chain is ‘great’ because of the end to which it is to be applied and its fitness to secure it.

Ver. 2. And he laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan.

This dragon we have already met at chaps. 12:3, 9, 13:2, 4, 16:13. He is the first of the three great enemies of the Church, who gives his authority to the beast, and is worshipped by the ungodly. The description corresponds to that at chap. 12:9, the only difference being that now we read not that he ‘is called’ but that he ‘is’ the devil. Whether this change may be owing to the fact that by this time Satan has been made known in his actual working, whereas then he was only introduced to us, it may be difficult to say; it is of more importance to observe that the last mention of him identifies him with the first.—And bound him a thousand years. The ‘binding’ is more than a mere limitation of Satan’s power. It puts a stop to that special evil working of his which is in the Seer’s eye. The meaning of the thousand years we shall afterwards inquire into.

Ver. 3. And cast him into the abyss, i.e. into the place to which he naturally belongs.—And shut it.

The angel closed the door of which he has the key, doubtless at the same time locking it, so that Satan should no longer continue the mischief he had done.—And sealed it over him, not only locking the door, but sealing it in order to make it doubly fast (Dan. 6:17).

In each of the acts thus described, the laying hold of Satan, the binding him, the putting him into the abyss, the closing and sealing the abyss, we have a mocking caricature of what was done to Jesus in the last days of His passion (John 18:12; Matt. 27:60, 66).—That he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years should be finished.

‘The’ thousand years, as shown by the use of the article, are the same as in ver. 2, and nothing more, therefore, need be said of them at present. But who are ‘the nations’? They are mentioned again in ver. 8, as being in the ‘four corners of the earth,’ as being ‘Gog and Magog.’

Some Ideas As To Who These “Nations” Might Be

One distinguished commentator (Bleek) regards them as ‘the heathen nations still remaining on the earth, which are also supposed to remain there during the thousand years’ kingdom, but at its most extreme and minutest points, so that the citizens of the Messianic kingdom do not come in contact with them, nor is their power disturbed by them.’

Another (Alford) has the same general idea, but with this difference, that he considers them to be, during the thousand years, ‘quiet and willing subjects of the kingdom,’ who are again seduced by Satan after he is let loose. A third (Düsterdieck) makes them simply the heathen.

A fourth (Kliefoth) draws a distinction between them and those meant by the ‘whole world’ or the ‘whole inhabited world’ (chaps. 3:10, 12:9, 16:14). These latter expressions are referred to the civilized and cultured nations of antiquity, while the more distant and barbarous peoples, living as it were upon the confines of the globe, are comprehended under the former. Over the one ‘the beast’ had exercised his sway, and they alone were destroyed at chap. 19:17–21. The other, ‘the nations,’ were not involved in that destruction, but were still left upon the earth.

The distinction thus drawn between cultured and uncultured peoples seems, however, to be inconsistent with various direct statements of the Apocalypse.

Thus at chap. 3:10 not only is there nothing to suggest the thought of only cultured peoples, but the ‘whole inhabited world’ spoken of must be understood in a sense as wide as that belonging to the words ‘them that dwell upon the earth’ which immediately follow. At chap. 12:9, where the rule of the dragon is described, it is impossible to limit the expression ‘the whole inhabited world’ in the manner proposed, for chap. 13:7 gives the beast, the vicegerent of Satan, universal power, and the influence of Babylon, with which that of the beast and therefore of Satan must be coextensive, extends to ‘all the nations,’ including the ‘kings’ and ‘merchants’ of the earth (chaps. 14:8, 18:3, 23).

Again, the words ‘the nations’ are used in a much wider sense than that of barbarous tribes in chap. 11:2, where they have their part in history; in chap. 11:18, where they must refer to the wicked in general in contrast with the good; in chap. 16:19, where they have ‘cities;’ in chap. 19:15, where they embrace all the enemies of Christ; and in chap. 21:24, where they cannot be limited to one section only of the heathen. In short, there does not appear to be a single passage of the Apocalypse in which ‘the whole inhabited world’ means the polished, or ‘the nations’ the unpolished, undeveloped, nations of the globe.

The only admissible interpretation, therefore, of the phrase ‘the nations’ is that which understands by it the unchristian godless world.

These nations Satan is to ‘deceive’ no more until the thousand years are finished. The word ‘deceive’ is again used in ver. 8, where we have a further description of that in which the deception consists. In the meantime it is enough to say that the word ‘till’ employed by the Seer takes us forward to the deception practised at the end of the thousand years as that which he has in view. What the dragon will then do he does not do till then. It is thus not a general but a particular deception that is contemplated. We are not necessarily to think of a cessation of Satan’s misleading of the world; but the ‘deceiving’ which he does not practise till the thousand years are finished is definite and special.—After this he must be loosed a little time. The word ‘must’ expresses, as usual, conformity to the purposes of God, who will certainly carry out His own plan.

Ver. 4. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them.

A new vision, or rather a further unfolding of that with which we have been occupied, is presented to us. We have first to ask what the ‘thrones’ are. Are they simply places of exalted dignity, or are they seats for judgment?

The two ideas might be combined were it not that reigning, not judging, is the prominent idea both of this passage and of Dan. 7:22 upon which the representation in all probability rests. The thrones before us are thrones of kings (chap. 3:21). Those that ‘sat upon them’ are certainly neither angels nor God; nor are they the twenty-four Elders, for it is the invariable practice of the Seer to name the latter when he has them in view. They can be no other than all the faithful members of Christ’s Church, or at least all of whom it is said in the last clause of the verse that they ‘reigned’ with Christ.—And judgment was given unto them.

These words cannot mean that the righteous were beheld seated as assessors with the Christ in judgment, for the word of the original used for judgment denotes the result and not the act of judging; and, so far as appears, there were at this moment none before them to be judged.

The use of the word ‘given’ leads to the thought of a judgment affecting themselves rather than others. If so, the most natural meaning will be that the result of judgment was in such a manner given them that they did not need to come into the judgment. As they had victory before they fought (1 John 5:4; see also on ver. 9), so they were acquitted before they were tried.

And I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and such as worshipped not the beast, neither his image, and received not his mark upon their forehead and upon their hand.

What the Seer beheld was ‘souls,’ and the analogy of chap. 6:9, a passage in many respects closely parallel to this, makes it clear that they were no more than souls. They had not yet been clothed with their resurrection bodies. The word ‘beheaded’ is very remarkable; nor does it seem a sufficient explanation when it is said that beheading was a Roman punishment. It was certainly not in this way alone that the earliest witnesses of Jesus met at the hands of the Roman power their martyr fate. There must be some other reason for the use of so singular a term.

It would seem that the bodies of Jewish criminals were usually cast out into the valley of Hinnom, ‘the beheaded or hanged in one spot, the stoned or burnt in another’ (Geikie’s Life of Christ, ii. 575). May the Seer have in his mind the thought present to him in chap. 11:8, 9, when he spoke of the dead bodies of the two witnesses as lying in the street of the great city and not suffered to be laid in a tomb? These were the ‘beheaded.’ The exposure to which they had been subjected, and the contumely with which they had been treated, are thought of more than the manner of their death.

And who were they? Are they no others than those described in the next clause as ‘not worshipping the beast,’ etc., or are they martyrs in the more special sense of the term? The particular relative employed in the original for ‘such as,’ together with the grammatical construction, favours the former idea. In all the clauses of the verse only a single class is spoken of, that of Christ’s faithful ones, and they are described first by their fate and next by their character (comp. chap. 1:7, and see on chap. 14:12). If we suppose them to be martyrs in the literal sense we must think of that very small class which suffered by decapitation, excluding the much larger ‘army of martyrs’ who had fallen by other means. Besides which, we introduce a distinction between two classes of Christians that is foreign to the teaching of Christ both in the Apocalypse and elsewhere.

God’s people without exception are always with their Lord; the promise that they shall sit upon His throne is to everyone that over-cometh (chap. 3:21); and in ver. 6 nothing more is said of these beheaded sufferers than may be said of all believers. We have already seen that St. John recognises no Christianity that is not attended by suffering and the cross. Every attempt to distinguish between actual martyrs and other true followers of Jesus must in the very nature of the case be vain. How often has there been more true martyrdom in bearing years of pining sickness or meeting wave after wave of sorrow than in encountering sword or axe or fire!

And they lived, and reigned with the Christ a thousand years.

The word ‘lived’ must, by every rule of interpretation, be understood in the same sense here as in the following clause, where it is applied to ‘the rest of the dead.’ In the latter connection, however, it cannot express life spiritual and eternal, or be referred to anything else than mere awaking to life after the sleep of death in the grave is over. In this sense we must understand it now. The word might have been translated ‘rose to life’ as in chaps. 2:8, 13:14. At this point, therefore, the resurrection of the righteous comes in—they ‘lived.’ But they not only lived, they ‘reigned.’ The word denotes only that condition of majesty, honour, and blessedness to which the righteous are exalted. There is no need to think of persons over whom they rule.

Ver. 5. The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished.

If the view taken of ver. 4 be correct, the ‘rest of the dead’ spoken of in ver. 5 can signify none but the ungodly. Believers without exception have been included among those enumerated in the previous verse. There remain only those who have rejected the Lamb, and have given themselves to the service of the beast. Apart from this consideration, we are led by the Apocalypse itself to interpret the word ‘dead’ of the ungodly (comp. on chap. 11:18). No doubt it is difficult to say why in this case we should read of ‘the rest of the dead’ rather than of ‘the dead.’ May it be that they are viewed as the counterpart of the faithful remnant which we have met in chaps. 2:24 and 12:17? At the point now reached by us the resurrection of all men, both good and bad, has taken place.

This is the first resurrection.

The word ‘this’ with which the last clause of the verse begins is to be understood as bearing its common acceptation ‘of this nature.’ The writer refers not to the word ‘lived’ alone, where it first occurs in his previous description, but even more particularly to the word ‘reigned;’ or, rather, he refers to the whole account which he has given of the blessedness of the righteous. He is thus, it will be observed, speaking not of an act, but of a state.

He is not thinking of any first act of rising in contrast with a second act of the same kind. He is describing the condition of certain persons in comparison with others after an act of rising, predicable of them both, has taken place. Hence the fact, so different from what we should naturally, on first reading the words, expect,—that there is no mention of a second resurrection. Nor can it be for a moment pled that the first resurrection implies a second. The Seer chooses his words too carefully to leave room for such an inference. The contrast that he has in view is not between a first and a second resurrection, but between a ‘first resurrection’ and a ‘second death.’ In the first of these two the rising from the dead may be included, but the thought of the condition to which that rising leads is more prominent than the act.

Ver. 6. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection.

In chap. 19:9 all believers were pronounced ‘blessed,’ and the word ‘holy’ denotes the consecration that is given not to a few only but to all the saints of God (chaps. 18:20, 19:8): besides which, we are immediately told, they ‘shall be priests of God and of the Christ.’ The whole description leads directly to the view that all Christians have part in the reign of the thousand years, whatever it may mean.

Over these the second death hath no power.

We have spoken of the ‘first resurrection’ as a state, not an act. It is even more clear that the same thing must be said of the ‘second death.’ The Seer has indeed himself distinctly explained it when he says, in ver. 14, ‘This is the second death, even the lake of fire’ (comp. also chap. 2:11). It is more than the death of the body, more even than the death of the body (could we suppose such a thing) twice repeated. It is the death of the whole man, body and soul together, the ‘eternal punishment’ denounced by our Lord against those who refuse to imitate His example, and to imbibe His spirit (Matt. 25:46).

As again bearing on our exposition of ver. 4, it may be well to notice that escaping the ‘second death’ is spoken of in chap. 2:11 as the privilege not of those alone who are in a special sense martyrs, but of all believers.

But they shall be priests of God and of the Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

These words again mention privileges (1) that are common to all believers, and (2) that continue not for a thousand years merely, but forever. All believers are ‘priests’ (chap. 1:6); all sit upon Christ’s ‘throne’ (chap. 3:21).

Philip Schaff, Ed., The Catholic Epistles and Revelation, A Popular Commentary on the New Testament, 6th ed., 4 vols., (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890), 4:140–143.

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