A Historicist Interpretation of Revelation – Part 1
This article presents an overview of a historicist school interpretation of Revelation. The historicist school interprets Revelation as revealing history in symbolic form from the time of Jesus until the Second Advent and beyond. Thus, according to the historicist school, Revelation reveals future history from the first century to the end of the age. This article deals primarily with the historic time line. The historicist interpretation was the primary interpretation used by the Reformers.
Readers are referred to A Flood of Light Upon the Book of Revelation by John S. Fox, The Book of Revelation by F. W. C. Neser, and Study in Revelation by Howard B. Rand for a more detailed description of historical events being described in Revelation and the symbolism and time scales used in Revelation.
Besides the historicist school of interpretation, three other basic schools of interpretation are used to interpret Revelation: praetorist, futurist, and apocalyptic. The praetorist school interprets Revelation as describing in symbolic form the events taking place during the lifetime of John and in his environment. Thus, the events described in Revelation have already occurred or have mostly occurred. The futurist school interprets Revelation as describing in symbolic form the future, primarily the time immediately preceding the Second Advent and the millennium. It is the most popular form of interpretation today. The apocalyptic school takes all figures as symbolic and interprets Revelation as a religious philosophy of life.
The following historicist explanation is primarily from Fox’s and Neser’s descriptions with some additions from Rand. Just as there are several futurist and praetorist interpretations, so there are several historicist interpretations. There is as much disagreement among the members of the historicist school over what events are being described as there is among members of the futurist school.
History Revealed from the First to the Twentieth Century
This Section contains a brief overview of the history as revealed from the first century through the nineteenth century.
The Seven Churches
The letter to Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7) describes the early or primitive Church from 30 A.D. to about 96 or 100 A.D. Some authorities place the end of this period in 64 A.D. when state persecutions began under Nero.
The letter to Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11) describes the Church during the era of pagan persecution. This era lasted from about 64 or 100 to 313. It began with the persecutions of Nero (64) and ended with the end of the persecutions of Diocletian.
The letter to Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17) describes the Church during the papal beginnings. This period began in 313 when Constantine succeeded Diocletian and declared Christianity the state religion. Some authorities place its end in 529 when Benedict founded the Benedict Order. Some place its end in 606 when Boniface III claimed the title of Universal Bishop. Others extend it to the Second Advent.
The letter to Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29) describes the Church during the era of papal supremacy. It lasted from 606 (or 529) to about 1866. Others place the end of this era in 1529.
The letter to Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6) describes the Church during the era of the Reformation. Some authorities place the beginning of this era in 1365, the era of John Wycliffe. Others place the beginning in 1517 when Luther published his 95 Theses at Wurttemberg. Yet others place the beginning in 1529. It lasted, according to some, to 1600, or, according to others, 1789 when the French Revolution began.
The letter to Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13) describes the Church during the era of liberation or the faithful church. Some authorities place the beginning of this era in 1789 with the beginning of the French Revolution. Others place the beginning in 1558 with the destruction of the Spanish Armada. This era ended, according to some, in 1800 when Philadelphia ceased being the capital of the United States. Others place the end in 1914 with the commencement of World War I. Yet some extend this era to the Second Advent.
The letter to Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22) describes the Church during the era of the final state apostasy or the lukewarm church. Some place the beginning of this era in 1800 while others place in 1850 or 1914. This era lasts until the Second Advent or the end of the age.
The First Six Seals
Chapter 6 of Revelation describes the first six seals.
The first seal, the white horse, (Rev 6:1-2) depicts a triumphant Rome. According to some authorities, this era begins in 31 B.C. when Augustus established the Roman Empire with his victory at the Battle of Actium. Others place the beginning of this period in 96 A.D. This period lasted until 180 A.D. according to some. Others place the end in 64 A.D. when Rome was burned and Nero began persecuting the Christians.
The second seal, the red horse, (Rev. 6:3-4) depicts civil war. According to some authorities, this period began in 185 and ended in 284. During this era there were 32 emperors, 27 pretenders, and numerous civil wars. Other authorities place this period between 64, the beginning of the Roman persecutions of Christians and 313, the end of the Roman persecutions.
The third seal, the black horse (Rev. 6:5-6) depicts heavy taxation and a time of depression and gloom, and of despair and calamity. According to some authorities, this era began in 200 and lasted until 250. During this time Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to all freemen and imposed heavy taxation on them. Other authorities place this period from 313, the beginning of Constantine's reign to the beginning of the great barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire in 396. It was during this era that the creeds were established and substituted for the Word of God.
The fourth seal, the pale horse (Rev. 6:7-8) depicts famine, disease, and death. According to some authorities, this era lasted from 250 to 300. Many people died during this time from wars, famine, and pestilence. A great plague occurred throughout the Roman Empire in 265. Other authorities place this era between 396 when Alaric the Goth invaded the Roman Empire and 536 when the Church Council at Constantinople compelled the state to execute its edicts.
The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11) depicts Rome martyring the Christians. According to some authorities, this period lasted from 303 to 313; during this time Diocletian attempted to exterminate the Christians. Others place this period between 536, when church and state were united, and 1755-1796, when this union was effectively broken in most countries.
The sixth seal (Rev. 6:12-17) depicts Rome divided. According to some authorities, this era falls between 313, when Constantine became emperor and recognized Christianity as the state religion, and 395, when the Roman Empire split in halve. During this era, paganism fell. Others place this era between 1755-1796 and probably the late 1940’s. According to these authorities this era opens with the godless French Revolution destroying the supremacy of the papacy over civil government and Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. The great earthquake that occurred on November 1, 1755, in Lisbon shook the entire territory of the old Roman Empire. The star shower was the meteoric shower of November 12 and 13, 1833.
Chapter 7 of Revelation describes God’s love and care of Israel, the Ten Lost Tribes. This Chapter refers to physical Israel and not to the Church. Most of the Ten Lost Tribes are found in Europe, primarily Western Europe, and the countries in America settled by Europeans, as well as Australia. Most of today’s Jews are not descendants of Israel.
The Seventh Seal: the Seven Trumpets
Chapter 8 of Revelation describes the beginning of the seventh seal, and the first four trumpets.
The seventh seal contains the seven trumpets. The trumpets overlap the fourth through sixth seals. The first four trumpets are the Gothic trumpets and represent the conquest of the European third of the Roman Empire.
The first trumpet (Rev. 8:7) depicts the Gothic invasion led by Alaric — “the third part of the trees was burnt.” It begins with Alaric and his Goths invading the Western Roman Empire in 396 (or according to some, in 400 just before the Visigoths overran Europe). It ends in 410 when Alaric sacked Rome. Others place the end of this period in 429.
The second trumpet (Rev. 8:8-9) depicts the Vandals under Genseric invading the Roman Empire from the sea — “the third part of the ships destroyed.” This era began in 425 (or 429) and ended in 470 (or 476 when Odoacer, king of the Heruli took Rome).
The third trumpet (Rev. 8:10-11) depicts Attila and his Huns invading the Roman Empire — “the third part of the rivers, and . . . fountains.” This era began in 451 with the Battle of Chalons, which resulted in Attila being driven back across the Rhine. Others place this era between 434 and 453.
The fourth trumpet (Rev. 8:12) depicts the final blow to Rome and the resulting break up of the Roman Empire — “the third part of the sun . . . darkened.” This occurred in 476 when Odoacer, king of the Heruli, took Rome and brought to an end the Roman Empire. Others place this period between 476 and 622, the founding of Mohammedanism.
Chapter 9 describes the fifth trumpet, the first woe, and sixth trumpet, the second woe.
The fifth trumpet, the first woe, (Rev. 9:1-12) is the Saracen trumpet and depicts the conquest of the Southern third of the Roman Empire — the war against idolatry. According to some, this era began in 612 when Mohammed proclaimed his mission. Others place the beginning in 622, the opening of the Mohammedan calendar, the Hegira, Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina. During this time the Saracens or Arabs overran the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. Some authorities place the end of this era in 762 when Caliph Al-Mansur built Baghdad and made it his capital. Other place the end in 1299 when Osman established the Ottoman Empire.
The sixth trumpet, the second woe, (Rev. 9:13-21) is the Turkish trumpet and depicts the conquest of the eastern third of the Roman Empire — horsemen slay the third part. Some authorities place the beginning of this period in 1062 when the Turks crossed the Euphrates River in their march westward. Others place the beginning in 1299 when the Ottoman Empire was established. The end of this period, according to some, occurred in 1453 with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople. Others place it in 1699 when the Ottoman power was broken with the Peace of Karlowitz. Others extend this era to the end of the twentieth century.
The Reformation and the Two Witnesses
Chapter 10 of Revelation describes the early days of the Reformation from John Wycliffe in the middle of the fourteenth century to the end of the sixteenth century.
Chapter 11 presents the two witnesses. The two witnesses are the Church (the candlestick) and Israel (the olive tree). The beast is papal Rome and its false doctrine. This chapter describes events from the sixteenth century until the end of the twentieth century.
The Seventh Trumpet and the Seven Vials
Chapters 12 and 16 describe the seventh trumpet, the third woe, and the seven vials of the seventh trumpet. Chapter 12 through 14 reviews some previous events.
The seventh trumpet (Rev. 11:15-19) is the third woe and depicts the rise of atheism, which began with the French Revolution and reaches its climax in communism.
Chapter 12 of Revelation describes the woman and the dragon. The woman symbolizes Israel. The dragon, the serpent, and the beast are Satan usually revealing himself through pagan Rome or papal Rome. This chapter describes the general movement of the lost tribes of Israel.
Chapter 13 describes papal power replacing pagan Rome. It describes the rise of the papacy. The papacy is the beast out of the sea and the man of sin.
Chapter 14 describes the decline of the papacy and the establishment of the kingdom.
Chapter 15 describes the victory over the beast.
The first vial (Rev. 16:2) describes the beginning of the French Revolution — the earth. This is the period that France rejects papal sovereignty. It began in 1789 with the beginning of the French Revolution and ended in 1793 or 1794 with the Reign of Terror. Other authorities place this period between 1781 and 1799 when France came under Napoleon’s domination.
The second vial (Rev. 16:3) describes the naval warfare of the Napoleonic Wars — the sea. This is the period of the British naval victories over France and Spain. It began in 1793 with Hood’s victory over the French at Toulon. It ended, according to some, in 1805 with the British victory at Trafalgar. Others place the end in 1813 while some extend this period to 1815, Napoleon’s final defeat.
The third vial (Rev. 16:4-7) describes France’s invasion of Germany (or the Italian revolts) — “the rivers and fountains of water.” This is the period of divine judgement on the Rhine, Danube, and Po valleys. According to some authorities, it began in 1793 with France’s first war against the major powers of Europe and lasted until 1806 when Napoleon forbade European trade with Great Britain. Others place this period between 1820 when the Italian revolts first began and 1849 with the Austrian victory at Novara, which gave Austria control of much of Italy.
The fourth vial (Rev. 16:8-9) describes the Napoleonic Wars (or the forming of the Kingdom of Italy) — the Sun. This is the period of tottering the Roman Catholic throne. According to some, it began in 1806 and lasted until 1815 when Napoleon was finally defeated. Others place this period between 1860 with the Sicilian revolt and 1870 when Rome became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
The fifth vial (Rev. 16:10-11) describes the seat of the beast. This is the period of the French capture of the Papal States and the Pope being exiled. According to some, it began in 1798 when the French captured the Papal States and ended in 1870 when Rome became part of the Kingdom of Italy. Others place this period between 1872 and 1886.
The sixth vial (Rev. 16:12-16) describes the way being prepared for Russian communism — the Great River Euphrates. This is the period of the collapse of the Turks. It is the period of the three unclean spirits or ideologies: the dragon (fascism), the beast (Nazism), and the false prophet (the papacy or Islam and communism). There is much disagreement over the beginning and ending of this period. Various authorities place the beginning in 1917-1918 with the fall of the Turkish Empire, 1878 with the end of the Russo-Turkish War that freed most of the Balkans from Turkish rule, or 1844 when Great Britain compelled Turkey to grant religious freedom to minorities. Various authorities place the end in 1945 with the end of World War II, in 1918 with the end of World War I, or 1928 when Turkey ceased having a state religion. (Some place the battle of Armageddon outside this vial, believing that it occurs, at least in part, later.)
The seventh vial (Rev. 16:17-21) closes this age and is discussed next.
Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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