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Revelation 12:3  (King James Version)

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Revelation 12:3

And there appeared another wonder in heaven - Represented as in heaven. See the notes on Revelation 12:1. That is, he saw this as occurring at the time when the church was thus about to increase.

And behold a great red dragon - The word rendered "dragon" - ́ drakōn - occurs, in the New Testament, only in the book of Revelation, where it is uniformly rendered as here - "dragon:" Revelation 12:3-4, Revelation 12:7,Revelation 12:9, Revelation 12:13, Revelation 12:16-17; Revelation 13:2, Revelation 13:4,Revelation 13:11; Revelation 16:13; Revelation 20:2. In all these places there is reference to the same thing. The word properly means "a large serpent" ; and the allusion in the word commonly is to some serpent, perhaps such as the anaconda, that resides in a desert or wilderness. See a full account of the ideas that prevailed in ancient times respecting the dragon, in Bochart, Hieroz. lib. iii. cap. xiv., vol. ii. pp. 428-440. There was much that was fabulous respecting this monster, and many notions were attached to the dragon which did not exist in reality, and which were ascribed to it by the imagination at a time when natural history was little understood. The characteristics ascribed to the dragon, according to Bochart, are, that it was distinguished:

(a)For its vast size;

(b)That it had something like a beard or dew-lap;

(c)That it had three rows of teeth;

(d)That its color was black, red, yellow, or ashy;

(e)That it had a wide mouth;

(f)That in its breathing it not only drew in the air, but also birds that were flying over it; and,

(g)That its hiss was terrible.

Occasionally, also, feet and wings were attributed to the dragon, and sometimes a lofty crest. The dragon, according to Bochart, was supposed to inhabit waste places and solitudes (compare the notes on Isaiah 13:22), and it became, therefore, an object of great terror. It is probable that the original of this was a huge serpent, and that all the other circumstances were added by the imagination. The prevailing ideas in regard to it, however, should be borne in mind, in order to see the force and propriety of the use of the word by John. Two special characteristics are stated by John in the general description of the dragon: one is, its red color; the other, that it was great. In regard to the former, as above mentioned, the dragon was supposed to be black, red, yellow, or ashy. See the authorities referred to in Bochart, ut sup., pp. 435, 436. There was doubtless a reason why the one seen by John should be represented as red. As to the other characteristic - great - the idea is that it was a huge monster, and this would properly refer to some mighty, terrible power which would be properly symbolized by such a monster.

Having seven heads - It was not unusual to attribute many heads to monsters, especially to fabulous monsters, and these greatly increased the terror of the animal. "Thus Cerberus usually has three heads assigned to him; but Hesiod (Theog. 312) assigns him fifty, and Horace ( Ode II. 13, 34) one hundred. So the Hydra of the Lake Lerna, killed by Hercules, had fifty heads (Virgil, Aen. vi. 576); and in Kiddushim, fol. 29, 2, rabbi Achse is said to have seen a demon like a dragon with seven heads" (Prof. Stuart, in loco). The seven heads would somehow denote power, or seats of power. Such a number of heads increase the terribleness, and, as it were, the vitality of the monster. What is here represented would be as terrible and formidable as such a monster; or such a monster would appropriately represent what was designed to be symbolized here. The number seven may be used here "as a perfect number," or merely to heighten the terror of the image; but it is more natural to suppose that there would be something in what is here represented which would lay the foundation for the use of this number. There would be something either in the origin of the power; or in the union of various powers now combined in the one represented by the dragon; or in the seat of the power, which this would properly symbolize. Compare the notes on Daniel 7:6.

And ten horns - Emblems of power, denoting that, in some respects, there were ten powers combined in this one. See the notes on Daniel 7:7-8, Daniel 7:20, Daniel 7:24. There can be little doubt that John had those passages of Daniel in his eye, and perhaps as little that the reference is to the same thing. The meaning is, that, in some respects, there would be a tenfold origin or division of the power represented by the dragon.

And seven crowns upon his heads - Greek, "diadems." See the notes on Revelation 9:7. There is a reference here to some kingly power, and doubtless John had some kingdom or sovereignty in his eye that would be properly symbolized in this manner. The method in which these heads and horns were arranged on the dragon is not stated, and is not material. All that is necessary in the explanation is, that there was something in the power referred to that would be properly represented by the seven heads, and something by the ten horns.

In the application of this, it will be necessary to inquire what was properly symbolized by these representations, and to refer again to these particulars with this view:

(a) "The dragon." This is explained in Revelation 12:9 of this chapter: "And the great dragon was cast out that old serpent, called the devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world." So again, Revelation 20:2, "And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the devil." Compare Bochart, Hieroz. ii. pp. 439, 440. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the reference here is to Satan, considered as the enemy of God, and the enemy of the peace of man, and especially as giving origin and form to some mighty power that would threaten the existence of the church.

(b) "Great." This will well describe the power of Satan as originating the organizations that were engaged for so long a time in persecuting the church, and endeavoring to destroy it. It was a work of vast power, controlling kings and nations for ages, and could have been accomplished only by one to whom the appellation used here could be given.

(c) "Red." This, too, is an appellation properly applied here to the dragon, or Satan, considered as the enemy of the church, and as originating this persecuting power, either:

(1)Because it well represents the bloody persecutions that would ensue, or.

(2)Because this would be the favorite color by which this power would be manifest. Compare Revelation 17:3-4; Revelation 18:12, Revelation 18:16.

(d) "The seven heads." There was, doubtless, as above remarked, something significant in these heads, as referring to the power designed to be represented. On the supposition that this refers to Rome, or to the power of Satan as manifested by Roman persecution, there can be no difficulty in the application; and, indeed, it is such an image as the writer would naturally use on the supposition that it had such a designed reference. Rome was built, as is well known, on seven hills (compare the notes on Revelation 10:3), and was called the seven-hilled city (Septicollis ), from having been originally built on seven hills, though subsequently three hills were added, making the whole number ten. See Eschenburg, Manual of Classical Literature , p. 1, section 53. Thus, Ovid:

"Sed quae de septem totum circumspicit orbem.

Montibus, imperii Romae Deumque locus ."


"Dis quibus septem placuere colles ."


"Septem urbs alta jugis, toti quae praesidet orbi ."

Tertullian: "I appeal to the citizens of Rome, the populace that dwell on the seven hills" ( Apol . 35). And again, Jerome to Marcella, when urging her to quit Rome for Bethlehem: "Read what is said in the Apocalypse of the seven hills," etc. The situation of the city, if that was destined to he represented by the dragon, would naturally suggest the idea of the seven-headed monster. Compare the notes on Rev. 13. The explanation which is here given of the meaning of the "seven heads" is, in fact, one that is given in the Book of Revelation itself, and there can be no danger of error in this part of the interpretation. See Revelation 17:9; "The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth," Compare Revelation 12:18.

(e) "The ten horns." These were emblems of power, denoting that in reference to that power there were, in some respects, ten sources. The same thing is referred to here which is in Daniel 7:7-8, Daniel 7:20, Daniel 7:24. See the notes on Daniel 7:24, where this subject is fully considered. The creature that John saw was indeed a monster, and we are not to expect entire congruity in the details. It is sufficient that the main idea is preserved, and that would be, if the reference was to Rome considered as the place where the energy of Satan, as opposed to God and the church, was centered.

(f) "The seven crowns." This would merely denote that kingly or royal authority was claimed.

The "general" interpretation which refers this vision to Rome may receive confirmation from the fact that the dragon was at one time the Roman standard, as is represented by the annexed engraving from Montfaucon. Ammianus Marcellinus (John 16:10) thus describes this standard: "The dragon was covered with purple cloth, and fastened to the end of a pike gilt and adorned with precious stones. It opened its wide throat, and the wind blew through it; and it hissed as if in a rage, with its tail floating in several folds through the air." He elsewhere often gives it the epithet of "purpureus " - purple-red: "purpureum signum draconis , etc." With this the description of Claudian well agrees also:

"Hi volucres tollent aquilas; hi picta draconum.

Colla levant: multumque tumet per nubila serpens,

Iratus stimulante noto, vivitque receptis.

Flatibus, et vario mentitur sibila flatu ."

The dragon was first used as an ensign near the close of the second century of the Christian era, and it was not until the third century that its use had become common; and the reference here, according to this fact, would be to that period of the Roman power when this had become a common standard, and when the applicability of this image would be readily understood. It is simply Rome that is referred to - Rome, the great agent of accomplishing the purposes of Satan toward the church. The eagle was the common Roman ensign in the time of the republic, and in the earlier periods of the empire; but in later periods the dragon became also a standard as common and as well known as the eagle. "In the third century it had become almost as notorious among Roman ensigns as the eagle itself; and is in the fourth century noted by Prudentius, Vegetius, Chrysostom, Ammianus, etc.; in the fifth, by Claudian and others" (Elliott).

Other Barnes' Notes entries containing Revelation 12:3:

Psalms 148:7
Revelation 1:4
Revelation 11:19
Revelation 12:3
Revelation 12:6
Revelation 12:7
Revelation 12:9
Revelation 12:14
Revelation 12:17
Revelation 13:1
Revelation 13:1
Revelation 13:1
Revelation 13:1
Revelation 13:1
Revelation 13:2
Revelation 13:4
Revelation 13:11
Revelation 15:1
Revelation 16:13
Revelation 16:13
Revelation 17:3
Revelation 17:9
Revelation 20:2


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