Eschatology: The Seven Kings

Four Kings

This series on Christian Eschatology discusses the aspects of Daniel and Revelation least affected by speculation. The most significant problem with Christian Eschatology is arbitrary interpretation, rooted in writer’s opinions or church traditions. This series derives conclusions from only two things: scripture and the historical record. No tradition is permitted.

The complete series:

The Whore of Babylon
Ten and Three Horns
“The Seven Kings” (this part)
The Image and Mark of the Beast

In Revelation 17:10, John speaks of seven kings:

“And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.”

Here are the list of the first ten emperors of Rome:

Julius Caesar (declared Dictator perpetuo in 44 B.C.)
Augustus (27 B.C. – 14 A.D.), Julius’ grand-nephew
Tiberius (14 – 37 A.D.), Augustus’ step-son
Caligula (37 – 41 A.D.), Tiberius’ grand-nephew
Claudius (41 – 54 A.D.), Caligula’s uncle
Nero (54 – 68 A.D.), Claudius’ grand-nephew
Galba (68-69 A.D.), related by marriage and adoption
Otho (Jan – Apr 69 A.D.), Etruscan (non-Roman) lineage
Vitellius (Apr – Dec 69 A.D.), of Latium or possibly common lineage
Vespasian (69 – 79 A.D.), a commoner
Titus (79 – 81 A.D.), Vespasian’s son
Domitian (81 – 96 A.D.), Titus’ brother

The question of which kings John is talking about hinges exclusively on when John’s book was written, but this date is not known. It also hinges on precisely how one counts emperors, and there are as many as nine different ways to count them. If we do not know which five have fallen, which one is currently reigning, and which one is to come, how is this prophecy to be of any use to us? After all, tradition isn’t unanimous. If we can’t narrow it down to specific kings using only scripture and history, then how can we know that these kings are literally kings and not, say, a sequence of kingdoms or eras?

“…preterists’ answers to these decisions are purely arbitrary. As Mounce concludes, “However people try to calculate the seven kings as Roman emperors, they encounter difficulties that cast considerable doubt on the entire approach.” [..] One would expect much greater agreement among the proponents of a theory on which so much rests.” (Mark L. Hitchcock, A Critique of the Preterist View of Revelation 17:9-11 And Nero, p. 5-6)

And so we must be able to answer the question using only the concrete and objective information we have available: scripture and history. So we begin in Daniel 2 with the vision of the statue. There we find that the Roman empire is broken up into multiple stages.

  1. The Iron Legs
  2. The Feet of Iron and Clay
  3. The strike of the stone that shatters the statue
  4. The Toes of Iron and Clay

The largest problem with the traditional selection of the order of emperors is that most preterists believe that the purpose of the list of kings is to signal the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. Thus, most care less about the start of the list and more about the end of the list. The ends justify the means. This is why starting the list with Julius Ceasar and ending the list with Galba as the seventh is so confusing to many: what is so special about Otho?

This is a critical error, a bias of determining what the interpretation should be based off what you already think it should mean. But neither Daniel nor John are highlighting the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. John is highlighting the end of the legs of Iron era. He’s putting down a chronological sign-post to understand the chronology. While the fall of Jerusalem is an important historical and eschatological event, it has nothing to do with the transitions within the Roman Empire.

It is tradition, not scripture, that leads to confusion about why John’s era ends with Galba. A quick examination of Daniel tells us exactly what the difference between the first seven kings (Legs of Iron) and those that followed are: the end of strict familial succession.

“And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men; but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.” — Daniel 2:43

The Revised English Version commentary on Daniel 2:43 says that:

“The most common understanding of this is that it is idiomatic for intermarriages among the different groups, but even so the groups will not combine but will remain separate.”

What does it mean to engage in intermarriage but not to cleave? Literally, it means to not have sex and to have no children. In the case of kings, it means having no heirs and letting the kingdom pass to another line. An examination of the history of rulers on the eschatological timeline is necessary, and shows something interesting. From 605BC to 69AD each king in each kingdom passed his rule to a member of his family, with only one exception: Alexander the Great. Daniel made specific note of this unusual fact:

“After he has arisen, his empire will be broken up and parceled out toward the four winds of heaven. It will not go to his descendants, nor will it have the power he exercised, because his empire will be uprooted and given to others.” — Daniel 11:4

The significance of Alexander the Great and Galba is not in their accomplishments, but that they failed to pass their empire on to a member of their own family. With Galba in particular, Rome would no longer be ruled only by Romans and this ‘intermarriage’ would not lead to unity or strength, because no familial bonds were forged. Daniel stressed the importance and relevance of the familial line of succession, and so do we in interpreting the visions of the book of Daniel.

The urge of some preterists to remove emperors that “don’t count” is ironic. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius are examples of the ‘clay’. They were not family relations to those that came before them and their rule was brief. That they don’t feel like they should be included on the list of emperors is precisely why they should be included in Daniel’s and John’s: they did not cleave to one another.

The greater significance of the “mixing of seed” was made clear in “Ten and Three Horns.” The antichrist came out of the city of Rome only after the Roman Empire was no longer truly Roman: the city was no longer the capital of the empire, nor even the principal city of its diocese, nor even strictly a member of its diocese at all. Rome was a semi-independent, non-diocesan entity that—at best—played a minor role in the empire’s politics. While commentators have noticed Daniel’s emphasis on ‘intermarriage’ and familial bonds, they nevertheless failed to consider the importance of lineage to eschatology as a whole. Yet, Daniel clearly stated that the iron and clay mixing was the result of mixed lineages that did not cleave together. It is for this reason that we can both identify the seven emperors of Rome and date the book of Revelation, relying only on scripture and history.

If Revelation was dated between 80 and 100AD, during the reign of Domitian (81-86AD), then he would be the sixth king. The seventh would be Nerva. But like Otho , we ask, what’s so special about Trajan? If we are to maintain our objective stance, the answer must be “It is the start of the Iron and Clay period.” According to Wikipedia, Trajan was the “First non-Italian Emperor“, which sort-of satisfies to prophecy of Daniel 2:43 regarding mixing seed and not cleaving. Moreover, he was known as the first of the “Five Good Emperors”, further indicating the transition from the strength of pure Iron (might) to Iron/Clay.

Marking Domitian as “sixth” seems pretty odd (who is first?!). Even though this may not meaningfully alter the interpretation of Revelation, the counting of kings appears to be subjective. It’s apparent subjectiveness may be the result of my historical ignorance, after all, if people had read Revelation for the first time during Domitian’s reign, they must have understood what John meant when he said the sixth king still reigned. The seven churches that received Revelation wouldn’t have had the issues identifying the seven kings that we do, because they knew when the letters were written. But we do not have that luxury. Thus, I will need to do more research on this topic. At the very least, the alternative dating hypothesis does not appear to meaningfully alter the conclusion about the seven kings referring to the transition to the Iron and Clay period of the Roman Empire.

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