The millennium: Its Old Testament roots

The antecedents of Johns prophetic view in Revelation 20 can be found in the Old Testament predictions concerning the apocalyptic "day of the Lord." We cannot fully understand one without the others.

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is a professor of theology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Several lines connect John's apocalyptic vision of the millennium in Revelation 20 with the prophetic and apocalyptic eschatologies of the Old Testament. Indeed, our Christian understanding of the three visions incorporated in Revelation 20 (note John's triple use of "I saw," in verses 1, 4, and 11) is illuminated greatly by uncovering the Old Testament roots of the millennium.

First, consider the term abyss, which is used twice (Rev. 20:1, 3) to refer to the "prison" (verse 7) in which the ancient serpent-dragon will be detained for a thousand years. As a term by itself, abyss functions both in the Revelation (9:1, 2, 11 [cf. Ps. 88:11]; 11:7; 17:8) and else where in the New Testament (Luke 8:31; Rom. 10:7) as a synonym of the grave, of death and destruction, and of the prison house of "the beast" and of demons. When Christ cast out certain evil spirits from a demon-possessed man in Galilee, "they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss" (Luke 8:31).*

In the Greek version of the Old Testament, abyss is used in Genesis 1:2 to describe the uninhabited earth before Creation week: "The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep [abyssos]. " The New Testament seems to have taken this prehistoric description of an empty, chaotic earth as its prototype for the concept of abyss as a dark pit and prison house for demons.

Beyond the implications of the term abyss, the Old Testament prophetic perspectives throw further light on the apocalyptic imagery of the millennium. Jeremiah's vision about the imminent and total destruction of Judah by Babylon is fraught with typological significance for the final judgment of the whole world: "I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone. ... I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger" (Jer. 4:23- 26). In Old Testament prophetic eschatology, the day of judgment is generally characterized by a twofold perspective: the immediate historical day of Yahweh for a particular rebellious nation, and the ultimate, eschatological day of Yahweh for the entire world. This simple, yet complex, concept of God's future reign, which reveals no concern for chronological, ethnic, or geographic distinctions, is rooted in the theocentric character of Israel's prophetic hope. The focus is on the same God who, in both historical situations, will act in the same way for judgment and salvation. G. E. Ladd summarizes this twofold perspective of prophetic eschatology this way: "This historical Day of the Lord is painted against the backdrop of the eschatological Day of the Lord."1

Jeremiah's vision of the coming devastation of "the earth" has, therefore, a definite apocalyptic dimension for the final judgment, when the devastation of earth and sky will reach its cosmic-universal range and climax. In that apocalyptic day of judgment the whole earth will return to its primordial state and become again an abyss: dark, formless, and empty (see Jer. 4:23, 28; cf. Gen. 1:2). That apocalyptic day, as the New Testament makes clear, is the second advent of Christ (see 2 Thess. 1:6-9; Rev. 6:12-17; 19:11-21). Then the whole world will become one great abyss—the earthly condition for a millennium, a prison house exclusively for Satan and his demonic spirits. The judgment of the second advent of Christ will leave no person alive on earth, according to Paul's eschatology. The saints, either by their resurrection or by their translation, will all be taken to the Father's house in heaven (see John 14:1-3; 1 Thess. 4:16, 17; 1 Cor. 15:51-55); the wicked will all be destroyed and laid in the dust of the earth by the consuming glory of Christ's appearing (see Heb. 10:26, 27; 2 Thess. 1:640; 2:8; Rev. 6:15-17; 16:17-21; 19:11-21). If no man remains alive on earth, it is evident that Satan, detained by God in the abyss of this ruined earth, is bound by a "great chain" of circumstances that Christ Himself has brought about by His glorious advent. During the millennium, Satan will be absolutely kept "from deceiving the nations any more" because he can no longer influence either the righteous in heaven or the wicked in death.

This apocalyptic imagery of Revelation 20:1-3 should not be confused with Christ's victory over Satan at His first advent. It seems unwarranted to identify completely the apocalyptic perspective of Satan's cosmic-universal binding in Revelation 20 with the fact that he is "bound" whenever the Spirit of Christ, through the gospel, releases individual believers from his dominion (see Matt. 12:28, 29). If it is true that Satan's apocalyptic binding has already been realized in the cross of Christ, once and for all, how then could Satan ever be released from this bondage again as announced in Revelation 20:7 ? We should be careful not to identify or confuse Christ's work at His second advent with that at His first advent.

The purpose of John's Apocalypse is not to repeat the four Gospels, which center upon the first advent of Christ, but to convey a progressive revelation centered more on His second advent. In Revelation 20, not only the time of Satan's binding is different from that in the Gospels, but also its nature and purpose. A. A. Hoekema states that the apocalyptic binding of Satan means that Satan's influence "is . . . curtailed [so] that he cannot prevent the spread of the gospel to the nations of the world" and that "the nations cannot conquer the church, but the church is conquering the nations." 2 But this view does not fully honor the radical nature of Satan's apocalyptic binding a definite confinement in the abyss of a ruined world "to keep him from deceiving the nations any more" (Rev. 20:3). To minimize the binding of Satan to the point that the millennium becomes simply an era of prosperous church development does not take seriously enough the absolute nature of Satan's binding in the Apocalypse. 3 The empirical fact remains that, centuries after the cross, Satan and his false apostles are still able to deceive the world by blinding the minds of unbelievers to the gospel (see 2 Cor. 4:4; 11:13, 14); the devil still "prowls around like a roaring lion" (see 1 Peter 5:8) and "is now at work in those who are disobedient" (Eph. 2:2). Even after his defeat at the cross of Christ (see Col. 2:15), Satan is still successfully deceiving the world with his miracles and signs (see 2 Thess. 2:9, 10), "filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short" (Rev. 12:12). John can even write, "The whole world is under the control of the evil one" (1 John 5:19). Certainly, the cross stripped Satan legally of all his rights before God, but not yet of his power to deceive mankind. To deprive him of that power is the apocalyptic reality of Christ's second advent, and its purpose is the specific theme of the Isaiah Apocalypse.

Two Old Testament passages seem to cast further light on the apocalyptic significance of the millennium: Isaiah 24:21-23 (within the Isaiah Apocalypse of chapters 24-27) and Ezekiel 36-39. Isaiah pictures the final judgment as God's retributive justice on a cosmic-universal scale: "In that day the Lord will punish the powers in the heavens above and the kings on the earth below. They will be herded together like prisoners bound in a dungeon; they will be shut up in prison and be punished after many days. The moon will be abashed, the sun ashamed; for the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before its elders, gloriously" (Isa. 24:21-23).

Several remarkable features can be observed in this apocalyptic passage: (1) the prophet sees God's judgment passed not only upon men but also upon angels, "the powers in the heavens above" (cf. Dan. 10:13, 20; Ps. 82; Eph. 6:12); (2) all these rebellious powers of heaven and earth will be "herded together like prisoners bound in a dungeon" ("pit", R.S. V., K.J.V.); (3) "shut up in prison," they will actually be punished only "after many days," that is, after a long, unspecified period of imprisonment. One cannot fail to notice in these three facets of Isaiah's Apocalypse the germinal concept of the millennium, with its binding of Satan in the abyss for a thousand years.

Of special significance is Isaiah's declaration that while all the evil powers are kept secure in detention, the whole earth lies in a state of waste and desolation. Here again is the picture of a worldwide abyss: "The earth will be completely laid waste and totally plundered. The Lord has spoken this word" (Isa. 24:3; cf. verses 19, 20). Only God's throne on Mount Zion stands secure.

In Isaiah's vision, God's final judgment comprises several phases: the evil powers will first be seized but not immediately punished; they will be detained for "many days." This preliminary judgment will be followed by a final judgment executed by God Himself. The anti-godly powers are symbolized by a multiheaded serpent-dragon (see Isa. 27:1; LXX: drakon; cf. Ps. 74:13, 14), revealing another specific link with the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation 20 (see verse 2).

The Isaiah Apocalypse reveals further that this cosmic judgment causes resurrection from the dead for the faithful covenant people of God: "Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. . . . The earth will give birth to her dead" (Isa. 26:19). With the blast of a "great trumpet" God will gather up "one by one" all faithful ones so that they may participate in the apocalyptic banquet of Yahweh "for all peoples" on the holy mountain (see chap. 27:12, 13; 25:6-9; 24:23). In John's Apocalypse, this banquet of Yahweh is transformed into "the wedding supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:6-9), when the Bride, the church of all the ages, will be forever united with her Saviour. This wedding feast is a central aspect of the future millennial kingdom of God in heaven, which takes place after the martyred saints have come to life again in the first resurrection (see chap. 20:4, 5).

Like Isaiah, the prophet Ezekiel speaks, too, of eschatological events in apocalyptic language. In chapters 38 and 39, he outlines a final war ("after many days") by Gog, Meshech, and Tubal against the restored Israel of God. Popular dispensational writers, without considering the New Testament's application of these chapters in Revelation 20, have seen in Ezekiel's apocalyptic prophecy a detailed chronicle of "the coming Russo-Israeli war." 4

However, Bible scholars of different theological persuasions agree that the seven judgment visions of John, found in Revelation 19:11 to 21:8, constitute a self-contained unit patterned basically after the outline of eschatological events in Ezekiel 36-48, although conflated as well with motifs from Daniel and Isaiah. 5 Ezekiel's prophetic scheme for the future of postexilic Israel culminates in a dramatic apocalyptic war against Messianic Israel and the final judgment of Yahweh. First, Yahweh will resurrect a new covenant people from Babylon and restore this cleansed and holy Israel to the Promised Land (see Eze. 36:24-32; 37:1-14). This faithful Israel of God will be ruled forever by the Messianic King "my servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd" (chap. 37:24, 25). Yahweh Himself will put His Shekinah glory among them forever in a perfectly realized covenant relationship "My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people" (verse 27).

Against this Messianic theocracy of Israel, Ezekiel portrays "after many days" (chap. 38:8) the apocalyptic attack of Gog, king of Magog, leader of the confederate nations of the world (see chapters 38, 39). The Israel of God does not engage in combat at all. It does not need to, because Yahweh will be the Divine Warrior who will fight this holy war alone, with the weapons from His own storehouse: "I will execute judgment upon him with plague and bloodshed; I will pour down torrents of rain, hailstones and burning sulfur on him and on his troops and on the many nations with him. And so I will show my greatness and my holiness, and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord" (Eze. 38:22, 23; cf. 39:6; Dan. 7:11).

John culminates his apocalyptic perspective, similarly, with God's judgment on Babylon (see Rev. 17, 18) and with the coming of the Messiah as the divine warrior from heaven who will destroy the persecutors of His church, "the beast," "the false prophet," and "the kings of the whole world" (see Rev. 19:19-21; cf. 16:12-21). For His faithful people, Christ then brings deliverance and resurrection from the dead (see chap. 20:4), the joys of the wedding banquet in the New Jerusalem in heaven (see chaps. 19:6-9; 21:2, 7), and the authority to judge on heavenly thrones in His kingdom for a thousand years (see chap. 20:4). This millennial kingdom will end with the descent of the New Jerusalem from heaven to earth, by the power of God. Satan will be released from his abyss, because now at the end of the thousand years the resurrection of the godless dead takes place (see chap. 20:5, 7; cf. John 5:28, 29; 1 Cor. 15:24). This sets the scene for Satan's final deception and the universal attack by God's enemies of all the ages on the New Jersualem, "the camp of God's people," according to Revelation 20:7-10. To indicate the basic continuity of this apocalyptic war with that of Ezekiel's vision, John identifies the satanic forces with "Gog and Magog" (verse 8). The following parallels may bring Ezekiel's and John's corresponding structural outlines into sharper focus:

1. The resurrection of a dead Israel from the graveyard of Babylon to be a new, holy covenant people of Yahweh (see Eze. 36:24-28; 37:1-14).

The resurrection of the beheaded witnesses of Christ who refused to worship the Babylonian "beast or his image" (see Rev. 20:4).

2. Israel, as the new theocracy, lives peacefully in the Promised Land under the rule of the new David, the Messiah (see Eze. 37:15-28). The resurrected saints reign with Christ for a thousand years (see Rev. 20:4-6).

3. After "many days," the final attack against Israel from the north by the armies of Gog, king of Magog, receives a smashing defeat through fire from heaven (see Eze. 38, 39).

After the saints' thousand-year reign, the armies of "Gog and Magog" attack the camp of God's people, the Holy City, from all directions, but are destroyed by fire from heaven (see Rev. 20:7-9).

4. The vision of Yahweh's theophany in a new Jerusalem (see Eze. 40-48).

The vision of the New Jerusalem, which descends from heaven to earth as the bride of the Lamb (see Rev. 21:1-22:5).

Thus, while the religious-political character and anti-Christian goal of the apocalyptic war is the same in both Ezekiel and John, specific differences can be observed that teach an important hermeneutical principle in apocalyptic interpretation. The ethnic and geographic restrictions of Ezekiel's old-covenant imagery ("my people Israel," "my land," Gog "in the far North," "Gog attacks the land of Israel," the earthshaking theophany of Yahweh, et cetera) are all transformed by John's Apocalypse into a thoroughly Christocentric dualism on a higher, transcendental keynote. John's Apocalypse is a Christian Apocalypse, which is characterized by the integration of the gospel of Christ into the prophetic and apocalyptic eschatologies of the Old Testament. This integration or redefining of Israel's eschatology takes place consistently and organically according to the Christological-ecclesiological principle. 6 This is the essential newness of the Christian Gospels and of the apocalyptic eschatology of the New Testament.

The apocalyptic perspective of the Old Testament is basic for the understanding of the ultimate triumph of God's everlasting covenant in the great controversy between God and Satan. The forecasts by Israel's prophets of the universal abyss and the divine punishment or judgment on all the ungodly powers in heaven and on earth receive their Christological key of interpretation from Christ in John's Apocalypse. Israel's king, "My servant David" (Eze. 37:24), becomes Christ, the "King of kings" (Rev. 19:16; 22:16). The echatological Messianic Israel (see Eze. 37:26-28; 38:11, 12) becomes the church triumphant in Christ's kingdom (see Rev. 20:4). Gog, king of Magog, and his political allies, will be Satan himself and his earthly allies, the worldwide population raised by God in the second resurrection but deceived by Satan in order to unite them in a universal rebellion against Christ and His bride, the New Jerusalem (see Rev. 20:7-9; 21:2). Since Ezekiel's outline prophecy has the same basic structure and order of events as do chapters 20-22 of John's Apocalypse, we may conclude that Revelation functions emphatically as the inspired Christian understanding of the future realization of Ezekiel 36-48, beginning with the second advent of Christ and the resurrection of the beheaded saints. The proclamation of the coming millennium becomes therefore a message for the present: to the Jews that Jesus Christ is the Messiah of Israel and that His church is the true Israel; to the Gentiles that Christ is the Judge of the world; and to the church that Jesus will vindicate her faith and reward her perseverance as her apocalyptic Redeemer in the blessed "first resurrection."


* Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

1 G. E. Ladd, The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 67. See pages 64-70 for a more extensive treatment of the dual-fulfillment aspect of Israel's prophetic eschatology.

2 In The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, Robert G. Clause, ed. (Downers Grove, 111: InterVarsity Press, 1977), p. 164.

3 R. H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 353, sees therefore "the complete cessation of his influence on earth" implied.

4 T. S. McCall and Z. Levitt, The Coming Russian Invasion of Israel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976). H. Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), pp. 48 ft.

5 Cf. Von Gunther Harder, "Eschatologische Schemata in der Johannes-Apokalypse," Theol. Viatorum 9 (1963), 70-87. A. Y. Collins, The Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation. Harvard Diss. in Rel. 9 (Scholars Press, 1976), pp. 39, 40. E. Schiissler-Fiorenza, "Composition and Structure of the Book of Revelation," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39 (1977), 344-366; esp. 362-364. G. E. Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 269, 270.

6 See A. F. Johns, "The Presentation of Ezekiel 38 in Evangelism, " Ministry, August, 1962, pp. 27, 28, 39; September 1962, 28-31. For a critique on H. Lindsey's writings, see T. Boersma, Is the Bible a Jigsaw Puzzle (St. Catherines, Ont.: Paideia Press, 1978), chap. 8, "Ezekiel's Prophecy About Gog." H. K. LaRondelle, "Israel and the Church," Ministry, July, 1981, pp. 12-14; "Is the Church Spiritual Israel?" Ministry, September, 1981, pp. 17-19; and "One Glorious Inheritance," Ministry, November, 1981, pp. 16-18.

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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is a professor of theology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

November 1982

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