“...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.