More on The Beast

5And the beast was  . . .   allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.[b] And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation

 

 

We’ve spent a few weeks now wrestling with the image of the sea beast as it appears in Revelation Chapter 13.  We have come to a consensus, I think, along with our commentators, Eugene Peterson and Vern Poythress, that this monster rising from the ocean represents earthly kingdoms or governments.  The idea, then, is that governments may become the tools of Satan.  That’s not hard to believe about some of the governments we’ve heard about, and some we have seen here in our lifetimes.  Again, Jagger and Richards said it pretty plainly, when they put these words in Satan’s mouth in their famous song, “Sympathy for the Devil.”  They speak of the murderous beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the carnage wrought in Europe by Hitler’s Third Reich, and the Medieval hundred years war:

 

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Tsar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

But what about right now?  What about today and tomorrow?  Right here in the good, old USA?  Here is what Poythress has to say about evil working in democracies:

In democratic countries, the state does not insist on literal worship [as does the beast in Revelation], but citizens are tempted to look to the state as if it were a messiah.  It is the greatest concentration of earthly powers, and so [as the erroneous thinking goes] it must be the remedy for all ills – economic, social, medical, moral and even spiritual.

Poythress, The Returning King, P&R Publishing, 2000, at p. 139

Indeed, it is this very impulse, at the heart of much modern, “progressive” thinking, that was the impetus for much contrarian, intellectual activity after the Second World War.  It may have been Eric Voegelin, an economist who escaped Hitler’s purges, who coined the phrase “immanentizing the eschaton,” meaning the drive – conscious or not – of modern activists to establish utopia here and now through whatever means necessary.

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One of the most intriguing and distinctive aspects of Eugene Peterson’s commentary on this passage is his soft-pedaled suggestion that there is, amid all of the horror of this imagery, something of a comic note:

. . . there is also an unmistakable touch of the ludicrous in St. John’s description [of the beast].  The sea beast is a patchwork job, assembled from left-over parts of leopard, bear, and lion.  St. John allows for [its] capacity to strike terror still, but he also shows [it] as considerably shopworn.  The old beasts have been around too long and are starting to lose their stuffing.

Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, Harper Collins, 1991, at p. 123

 

Saint John writes to prepare the infant congregations in Asia Minor and throughout the Roman Empire for the worst.  For the trouble they will suffer at the hands of government and the agencies of deception that prop those governments up.  But his message, finally, is that evil, despite its capacity to injure and retard the flourishing of humanity, is limited and it is doomed.  It will not finally win the day.  We have seen that in the twentieth century in the fall of the Third Reich and the later fall of the Soviet Union.  Indeed, we may see Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Natan Sharansky as men of faith who faced down the great beast of oppressive governments in their day.  Surely these men understood the nature of oppression.  That, despite its power and ability to kill and injure, the great sea beast of absolutist oppression is limited and, finally, doomed.

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That brings me to another observation.  The governments that have survived long term – one thinks of England and, to a lesser degree, the US – are governments that are, by their own terms, by their own constitutions, limited governments.  There are checks and balances.  There are inalienable human and civil rights afforded to individuals.  There are – and this may be the biggest concession of all – term limits.  Is it a mere coincidence that these governments have survived while the absolutist, monolithic states have crumbled?   Are the limitations on government – beginning with the Magna Carta – born of the biblical idea portrayed here in Revelation  – an admission that the sea beast is doomed?  That government – human government – cannot pretend to absolute power?

 

copyright 2016

 

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