Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes: Exodus
With the mention of darkening skies (9:2) and a plague of locusts (9:3), the ten plagues from the book of Exodus come to mind. Indeed the theme of plagues is a prominent one in Revelation (see “Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes: The Ten Plagues” at 15:6). More than that, the whole book of Exodus plays a major role in the background to the book of Revelation, and no wonder.
The first part of the book of Exodus (Ex 1–15) recounts the salvation event par excellence in the Old Testament with the stirring story of God’s rescue of his enslaved people from the clutches of mighty Egypt and its powerful ruler, the Pharaoh. Revelation was written during a time when another powerful nation, Rome, and its leader, the emperor, dominated God’s people the church. The message of Revelation is that no worldly power can stop God from delivering his people and bringing them to himself. Allusions to the book of Exodus helps the book of Revelation teach this important truth.
The second part of Exodus (16–24) narrates the beginning of the wandering in the wilderness. After crossing the sea, Israel was now definitively freed from their bondage to Egypt, but their journey toward the promised land had just begun and would last longer than they would imagine. The apex of this part of the book describes the encounter between Israel, led by Moses, and God at Mount Sinai, which was the location of his encounter with God in the burning bush.
As Moses ascended Sinai, God reminded the people of the great act of deliverance out of the powerful nation of Israel, and “how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” in safety from danger (Ex 19:4). This provides the background for the picture of the woman, who represents the New Testament people of God, being brought to safety out of reach of the dragon who represents Satan (Rev 12:14). Here the woman herself is given two eagle’s wings to fly into the wilderness.
God then promised Israel in Exodus that if they obeyed him then “you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:5–6). Priests are those who represent God in the world and function as a bodyguard of his holiness.3
This combination of kingdom and priestly status resonates in the picture of God’s persevering people in the book of Revelation. At the very start of Revelation, John opens with a doxology that praises God who has “made us to be a kingdom and priests” (1:6). This thought is repeated in the worship song of the four living creatures and twenty-four elders who proclaim that God had purchased the church by his blood and “made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (5:10).
Revelation also uses the language of God’s appearance to Israel at this time to describe God’s appearance to John. At Sinai and in Revelation, God appears accompanied by thunder and lightning (Ex 19:16; Rev. 4:5), smoke (Ex 19:18; Rev. 15:8), and with a cloud (Ex 19:9, 16; Rev 1:7; 14:14). At Sinai God revealed himself to his rescued people by giving Israel the law. In addition, the law, in particular the Ten Commandments, play a role in the book (see “Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes: The Ten Commandments” at 6:2).
The third part of Exodus (25–40) recounts the building of the tabernacle, the place where God made his abiding presence known to his people. God could appear anywhere, of course, and did when he chose, for instance to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:1–4:17). The tabernacle, though, was the place where God’s presence dwelt with his people. The book of Revelation uses tabernacle/temple imagery to depict heavenly realities, because the tabernacle/temple was heaven on earth (see “Revelation 21 through Old Testament Eyes: The Heavenly Temple”). There may also be some echoes to the dress of the priests that are described in Exodus (see notes regarding “jasper and ruby” at Rev 4:3 and “shining linen” at 15:6).
This post is adapted from Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes by Tremper Longman, III. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
The book of Revelation simply cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament
Through Old Testament Eyes is a new kind of commentary series that illuminates the Old Testament backgrounds, allusions, patterns, and references saturating the New Testament. The structure and content of the Old Testament were second nature to the New Testament authors and their audiences, but today’s readers have no reference point for understanding their intricate role in the New Testament. Bible teachers, preachers, and students committed to understanding Scripture will gain insight through these rich Old Testament connections, which clarify puzzling passages and explain others in fresh ways.
The images of Revelation–like a seven-sealed scroll, four horsemen bringing destruction and death, locusts from the Abyss, and more–often seem hopelessly complex to today’s readers and have led to egregious misunderstanding and misinterpretations. But as Tremper Longman demonstrates in Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes, this confusion arises from unfamiliarity with symbolism that Revelation’s first readers readily comprehended. In large part, the imagery arises from first-century AD Greco-Roman culture and from the Old Testament, with its own background in ancient Near Eastern literature. Through its unmistakable Old Testament connections, Revelation exhorts readers to persevere in the present and place their hope in God for the future.
Avoiding overly technical discussions and interpretive debates to concentrate on Old Testament influences, Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes combines rigorous, focused New Testament scholarship with deep respect for the entire biblical text.