Prophetic speculation is rampant. Books dealing with the end times continue to flood the market. Is America part of Bible prophecy? What about Russia? Two recent books. Let’s not forget blood moons . . . earthquakes . . . ellipses . . . hurricanes . . . wars. Probably the most talked about and written about so-called end-time sign relates to Israel. We’ve been told to keep an eye on Israel. The book of Revelation is “all about Israel.” The thing of it is, Revelation is all about Israel. But you’ll be surprised to learn that the modern state of Israel is not the Israel Revelation is discussing.
Brian Godawa has been studying and writing and speaking on the topic of Bible prophecy for many years. The following article is his latest attempt to put the book of Revelation in historical perspective. — Gary DeMar
One Little Word Changes Everything
Revelation is surely one of the most controversial and debated books of the Bible. It is visionary, it is fantastic, it is earth-shattering in its significance. And I had always assumed it was about the end of the world in our future. But I would eventually discover that it was not about the end of the world, but about the end of the old covenant and its earthly elements of holy city and temple in the past. It is earth-shattering in heavenly significance, but not in earthly geographic scope.
And I can prove that with one little word: earth.
You see, the word “earth” shows up a lot in English translations of Revelation, and it is that word that makes it so apparently obvious to modern readers that it’s about the end of the world, the earth.
Here are some examples of “earth” used in Revelation:
- The horsemen of the apocalypse “take peace from the earth” (Rev 6:4) and kill “a fourth of the earth” (Rev 6:8).
- The seven trumpets of woe are blown over “those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 8:13).
- The seven bowls of wrath are “poured out upon the earth” (Rev 16:1).
- God avenges the blood of his martyrs by judging those “who dwell on the earth” (Rev 6:10).
- The Two Witnesses call down plagues upon the earth (Rev 11:6).
- The grape harvest of wrath is judgment “of the earth” (Rev 14:18-19).
- The Great Harlot, Mystery Babylon, is guilty of the “earth’s abominations” (Rev 17:5) and the blood of “all who have been slain on the earth” (Rev 18:24).
The problem is that the English word conjures in our modern scientific minds a picture of the globe, as seen in NASA pictures. That is not what it meant to the ancient Jews writing and reading Revelation. The Greek word translated “earth” (gē), and its Hebrew equivalent in the old testament (eretz) has several different meanings based on context. One of those meanings may be the earth as God’s creation (Gen 1:1), but more often it means, soil, ground, individual countries or regions, or land.
And that word “land” is the key. Because to the ancient Israelite, the word “land” was an often repeated meme that meant “the land of Israel.” As scholar Kenneth Gentry explains in his forthcoming commentary on Revelation, in the Old Testament, a majority of the contexts that the word for “earth” appears (both Hebrew and Greek) refer to the land of Israel. He writes,
This particularly abundant use of gē is significant in that the land promised to Israel was central to God’s covenant with her (e.g., Ge 12:1–7; Ex 3:7–18; 6:2–8). The Land was one of the three realia [objects] dominating her devotion: the Land, Jerusalem, and the temple. As [the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis] (1:522) puts it: “the land on which Israel lived forms one of the primary theological and ethnic foci of the faith of Israel and of the OT scriptures.” When God established Israel as a nation, her founding documents elevated the Land as the first of these great hopes: “In terms of the Hexateuch there is probably no more important idea than that expressed in terms of the land promised and later granted by Yahweh.” In fact, “the motif of the Promised Land is a major pattern in the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua” (DBI 665), which record the historical foundations of Israel as a people, society, and nation. The Land was also “of central importance to all of the writing prophets” (AB 4:149). Indeed, “the prominence of the Land of Israel in the Bible is the result of deep religious conviction, pervading all sacred Jewish literature.”
Here is how I know that “earth” should be better translated as “land” in most of Revelation, and in particular meaning the land of Israel: Take a look at the beginning of the letter where John explains one of the main purposes of the judgment he was predicting: “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him” (Rev. 1:7).
So, you would assume the “tribes of the earth” is a reference to everyone on the earth. Jesus is coming to judge everyone on the earth. Sounds simple, right? But you would be wrong.
That Old Testament prophecy that John quotes is from the book of Zechariah. The tribes that the prophecy speaks of are not the tribes of the earth, but the tribes of the land, the tribes of Israel:
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn…. The land shall mourn, each family by itself: the family of the house of David … and all the families that are left… (Zech. 12:10-14).
According to the apostle Peter, the first-century generation of Jews was guilty of piercing or crucifying Jesus the Messiah.
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God … this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:22-23).
Yes, the Romans took part in the crucifixion (4:27-28). But from God’s perspective, the Jews who rejected their own Messiah, the Son of David, had the far greater sin. And in fact, that guilt was so great, that Jesus said God would destroy the city of Jerusalem and the temple as judgment for that high-handed crime (Matt. 23:37-24:1; 21:33-46). That first-century generation of Jews would be guilty of “all the righteous blood of the prophets shed on the land” [gē: land of Israel] (23:35-36) because they would kill their own Messiah.
So, a more accurate translation of Revelation 1:7 reads: “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all tribes of the land [of Israel] will wail on account of Him.”
Once the reader sees that the guiding thematic passage in Revelation is about the land of Israel and not the earth as a globe, we see a more localized judgment upon Israel, not the end of the world:
- The horsemen of the apocalypse “take peace from the land of Israel” (Rev. 6:4) and kill a fourth of the land of Israel (6:8).
- The seven trumpets of woe are blown over “those who dwell on the land of Israel” (8:13).
- The seven bowls of wrath are “poured out upon the land of Israel” (16:1).
- God avenges the blood of his martyrs by judging those “who dwell on the land of Israel” (6:10).
- The Two Witnesses call down plagues upon the land of Israel (11:6).
- The grape harvest of wrath is judgment of the land of Israel (14:18-19)
- The Great Harlot, Mystery Babylon, is guilty of the “land’s abominations” (7:5) and the blood of “all who have been slain on the land of Israel” (18:24).
Guess what? That recurring phrase in Revelation above, “those who dwell on the land,” is a phrase that is used specifically of Israelites in the land of Israel all throughout the Greek Old Testament (Jer. 1:14; 10:18; Ezek. 7:7; 36:17; Hosea 4:1, 3; Joel 1:2, 14; 2:1; Zeph. 1:8). And the bloodguilt of the great harlot for “all who have been slain on the land” is the same bloodguilt Jesus proclaimed over first-century Jewish leaders who rejected him (Matt. 23:35). Those Jewish religious leaders were a great harlot with their spiritual adultery (Ezek. 6:9; Isa. 1:21; Hosea 2; Jer. 3:3; 4:30). Revelation is about a local judgment on the land of Israel, not the end of the global earth (Matt. 14:15-21).
So, you see, one little word does change everything, doesn’t it?
The reader who is predisposed toward an “end of the world” interpretation of Revelation will no doubt have a difficult time envisioning a scenario that is radically at odds with their global paradigm. And that is one of the reasons why I am writing a series of novels called Chronicles of the Apocalypse, that tell the story of the book of Revelation in the first century through the eyes and experience of first-century Jews, Christians, and Romans. It shows how the imagery and language of Revelation are fulfilled in that first-century judgment upon the land of Israel, with its holy city and temple. But it does so through historical yet entertaining fiction. The first two novels, Tyrant: Rise of the Beast and Remnant: Rescue of the Elect, are available in eBook, paperback, and audiobook format at Amazon.com.
Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a controversial movie and culture blogger (www.Godawa.com), an internationally known teacher on faith, worldviews, and storytelling (Hollywood Worldviews), and an Amazon best-selling author of Biblical fiction (Chronicles of the Nephilim).