Friday, 22 July 2016

Jesus ruling with an iron rod – Bible translations gone wild

“...and He will rule the nations with a rod of iron” - Revelation 19:15

Perhaps it is because of how we use this phrase in modern language but whenever I have read this verse in the past I had this image in my head of some communist dictator just blasting anyone for the slightest of offenses. It always seemed so at odds with who Jesus is as revealed elsewhere in scripture. One could say the same thing about much of the book of Revelation actually. But as I have stated elsewhere, I believe that my previous understanding of the book of Revelation was deeply flawed and that, when read in the right way, it actually fits very well with what we read of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Much of the violent imagery in Revelation is actually written in a way as to purposefully contrast the violent ways of Babylon and the dragon with the nonviolent way of the Lamb (which is the title most often used of Jesus in Revelation). Consider for example the first part of the same verse I am discussing where it says that “From His mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations” and also 2 verses earlier how He rides in to battle with a “robe dipped in blood”. I see two choices here; one could ignore everything that Jesus previously said about loving ones enemies or about those who live by the sword and go with a violent interpretation of Jesus. Or one could recognize the same Jesus who conquers by laying down His own life (Rev 5:6-13) and realize that the blood on His clothes is His own (remember He is riding into battle) that was shed for His enemies and recognize that the sword is not in His hand but rather in His mouth, making it more likely a symbolic gesture that He wages war with the truth of His words rather than a literal sword gripped between His teeth.  

So what do I make of Him ruling with an iron rod then? Does Jesus finally give up on the good shepherd act for the superior way of a harsh overlord? You probably already figured that I am of the “Good shepherd” persuasion but allow me explain why. Firstly, the rod of iron mentioned here is believed by many scholars to be referring to a shepherd’s staff. To quote Eldred Echols from his commentary on Revelation entitled, “The Dragon’s Defeat”, “The crook is used to control the sheep. The hook was used to pull the sheep back into line”. This idea has support in Micah 7:14 which says “Feed my people with thy rod” in the KJV or as the NLT puts it, “Protect your people with your shepherd’s staff”. One is also reminded of Psalm 23:4 which says, “Your rod and your staff comfort me”; Psalm 23 is also of course the famous “The Lord is my shepherd” chapter.  The idea of iron might just be symbolic of strength or truth as it is occasionally used elsewhere in the Bible. But what makes this interpretation most compelling is the fact that the Greek does not actually say “RULE the nations with a rod of iron” but rather “SHEPHERD the nations with a rod of iron”. It is the same word we see in John 21:16 where Jesus says to Peter “FEED my sheep”. It is used again in Acts 20:28 where it says, “FEED and shepherd God’s flock”. In 1 Peter 5:2 again it is translated as “CARE for the flock that God has entrusted to you.” There are other similar examples in scripture as well but the point is clear.

Once I had discovered this I started to look up the Greek words in other verses where I could remember the word ‘rule’ or ‘ruler’ popped up. I remembered Jesus’ words to His disciples that the rulers of the gentiles like to lord and exercise authority over others. I remembered in John 12 where it said that Satan was the ruler of this world. The few verses I looked up with the word ‘rule’ in them all had different Greek words to the one used in Revelation 19. I subtitled this post Bible translations gone wild because this discovery was made during a Bible study and the 4 translations that we were working with all read “rule with a rod of iron”. Later on I discovered that only 5 out of 23 translations that I could find used the word shepherd rather than rule. One can only assume that the popular violent interpretation of the chapter as a whole as well as influence of past translations may have influenced the translators  to say ‘rule’ rather than ‘shepherd’ in most cases.

Despite my protests, one does however have to acknowledge the idea of wrath and judgement in the context of verse 15 as well but not at the expense of letting go of the God who also gave us the Sermon on the Mount. Understanding wrath as a handing over of someone to their own destructive ways (see Romans 1:26 and Isaiah 1:31) and viewing chapter 19:15 in light of chapter 16:6 we can see that evil has a way of destroying itself. The hugely anticipated battle in Revelation 19 is rather disappointing if you are looking for some action when you realize that God wins the war without a single shot actually being fired. Chapter 5:5 tells us that the battle has already been won on the cross. One of the central points John is trying to make in the book is that we don’t fight like the world does but rather we are victorious in imitating the Lamb.

And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony (martyrdom). And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die. – Revelation 12:11

So if you are like me and this verse puzzled you in the past then take comfort, He is still the same yesterday, today and forever. Even in Revelation.


  1. // I see two choices here; one could ignore everything that Jesus previously said about loving ones enemies or about those who live by the sword and go with a violent interpretation of Jesus. Or one could recognize the same Jesus who conquers by laying down His own life (Rev 5:6-13) and realize that the blood on His clothes is His own (remember He is riding into battle) that was shed for His enemies and recognize that the sword is not in His hand but rather in His mouth, making it more likely a symbolic gesture that He wages war with the truth of His words rather than a literal sword gripped between His teeth. //

    Hi Wesley! You know, I'm not sure we only have those two choices. It seems to me that there is no real contradiction in a third option, which has been pretty standard in church history. Namely, to say that the divine role involves judicial vengeance at appropriate point (with the prospect of violence, and due to recalcitrant evil), while on the other hand, the human vocation in the imago Dei does not. Even so, on this view, humans may in certain contexts be tasked with being executors of divine retribution (for example, the penalty of stoning under the Mosaic law), which nonetheless is understood not to violate the sixth commandment. In teaching us that the law is summed up in its two greatest commandments about love, Jesus is not nullifying the death penalties in the law, which remain divinely sanctioned for those under the law, should they fail to keep the greatest commandments in egregious ways. Meanwhile, those under grace have no such burden and sanction, but love as a universal ethic for Christians would not seem to preclude a coming day of vengeance that is the Lord's, with the prospect of violence.

    I recognize that there are significant debates in this area, so my only point here is that there doesn't seem to be any problem with a Jesus who acts at times in accordance with non-vengeance, and at other times in accordance with vengeance. After all, Jesus uniquely represents human and divine roles. An example of a hostile post-Ascension Jesus is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:8, which seems decidedly theophanic and warring compared to the Messiah of the gospels.

    I'm not sure how much you've considered the context of Revelation 19:13 and 15, but it seems to me that we must say that Christ's robe is dipped in the blood of his enemies (or blood signifying that). It's not so much that the passage of vv11-21 depicts war and slaughter, it's the connection to treading the winepress of God's wrath (v15). In Revelation 14, the other chapter to include the Lake of Fire, the "son of man" seated on a cloud comes to earth to reap, along with reaping angels, and the people are gathered as "the grape harvest of the earth and [thrown] into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse's bridle, for 1,600 stadia" (v19-20). In chapter 19 although he is coming to make war and tread the winepress, it seems that the winepress was also trodden in chapter 14 too, issuing in blood.


  2. What really clinches it for me though is the source text of Isaiah 63, where the Lord is marching from Edom in red-stained apparel, "like his who treads in the winepress," which is vividly explained as the lifeblood of the people trampled in wrath, "spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel." The Lord has come from a great slaughter, and is also going on to a greater slaughter. But it is both the day of vengeance and the year of redemption (v4), so the people-as-grapes motif is unpacked in terms of the new wine in the cluster not being destroyed (Isa 65:8), even though the bad is "destine[d] to the sword... to the slaughter" (v12).

    When this destiny of violent demise occurs in chapter 66, by fire and sword, the gorging of corpses by scavengers occurs (maggots in Isa 66:24; birds and beasts in Jer 7:33 cf. Jer 25:33). And this is exactly what we see in Revelation 19. When the armies of heaven and the Rider on the white horse come with the sword of God to strike down the nations (v15), birds and beasts are summoned to feast upon the corpses of those who "were slain by the sword lthat came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse" (v21).

    To conclude, I think the blood on the Lord's garments is that of his enemies, and the sword from his mouth signifies the slaughter of theophanic wrath. This doesn't mean we have to think of literal sword, blood, fire and animals feeding on corpses. However, considering all the connections with OT motifs I think that in the end it's too much of a stretch to have it comport with peace, and we should go instead with the interpretation of death and destruction by some means.

    But what do you think?

    1. Thanks Peter for putting something strong and concise down for me to consider. Your effort in doing so means a lot to me. I do have some thoughts to add regarding Rev 14 and Isaiah 63 but let me get back to you later when I have some time to sit down and properly consider your words properly.

    2. Hi Peter. I have a few thoughts to add here. firstly you are correct, what you have suggested is a third way and probably the most generally accepted of the views as well. It was my own for the better part of three decades as well and and I think it can be argued for very well from scripture as well.

      But the hypothesis I have been working out over the past few years is something like this. Jesus reveals to us the exact image of who God is and what He is like. Isaiah tells us that no violence was found in Him (53:9) and He taught us the same both on the sermon on the mount and in the example of His life as it was recorded in the gospels. Paul affirms much of this in Romans 12 as well. I think a strong case can be made that Revelation portrays the same lamb-like Jesus as the gospels do, yet it does so using clever contrasts throughout. Babylon with the New Jerusalem, The bride with the harlot, those marked with the beasts number and those marked with the lambs name on their foreheads, those who conquer death as martyrs and those who conquer as Nicolatians or with the dragon and so on. I see Christ as giving life and death as an enemy. The two are mutually exclusive. Sin kills, Jesus saves. I know that this brings up a lot of difficult questions, especially regarding OT violence and I admit that I do not have all the answers for those questions. I do however see enough in scripture, particularly in Christ to think that Jesus is nonviolent. (I've added a link to another article that looks slightly more into this as well).

      I still see annihilation and wrath in Revelation but I believe that wrath is the giving of someone over to their own desires which results in death (Isaiah 1:31 and Romans 1:18-24). I see this in Rev 14 as well which I interpret in light of 16:6. Those who spill the blood of the lambs followers will be given blood to drink or in other words, those who live by the sword will die by the sword. I know that does not harmonize very well with Isaiah 63:3-6 but I suspect it is referenced in a subversive manner. It is a little like justifying striking down our enemies with fire from heaven like Elijah which is something Jesus rebuked His disciples for wanting to do later on. I'm not saying Elijah was wrong. All I am saying is that a flat reading of scripture can be confusing sometimes, in those cases I go with Jesus. In Isaiah's case the overall theme of the book, even chapter 63 itself is about God's willingness to redeem all nations (I'm especially fond of verse 11).

      I'm really just thinking out loud and am open to alternate views (even though I have my bias). Perhaps God is violent so we don't have to be, perhaps He conquers evil by fighting fire with fire and perhaps there is a judicial sense to justice apart from restoration. Or perhaps, as I suspect, His ways are different and set apart from our own. Like I said, this view is not without some exegetical difficulties (hopefully temporary ones that I will figure out in time) but I am more at peace with those issues than I am with a mars-like god. Here is the link to the other article

      Thanks again for commenting. I will still be thinking about what you said. I am for more interested in pursuing truth than I am in defending what I think I already know so I appreciate and value your input.