[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
The question of whether the ancient Roman Empire will be revived in the prophetic future at the end of the age is one of the intriguing interpretative problems of the Scriptures. Liberal theologians have been quite sure that such an expectation is a vain hope, and that prophecy cannot be taken that literally.1 Evangelicals have not all been agreed on the answer to the question either, but many, particularly premillenarians, have felt that the prophetic foreview of both Daniel and Revelation anticipates the revival of Rome politically and religiously. The Protestant reformers like John Calvin interpreted prophecies of the end time to refer to the Roman Catholic Church, and tended to relate the political implications to the existing political situation.
In the twentieth century the question of the revival of Rome has taken on new prominence with the revival of the Middle East as a whole, the formation of the new State of Israel, the reformations of the Roman Catholic Church, and many other factors which again are directing attention to the Middle East. Accordingly, the revival of Rome becomes once again a live question.
Previously the author contributed an article on the ten-nation confederacy, dealing with four major Scripture passages (Dan 2:34-35, 40-45; 7:7-8, 19-24 ; Rev 13:1-2; 17:3, 7, 12-16 ).2 It was demonstrated that these passages prophesy a future ten-nation confederacy in the Middle East which will form a large part in prophecy of the end time and be the forerunner of the ultimate world government. The author has also contributed to the subject several chapters on the place of Rome, including one specifically on the revival of Rome.3 The present study is directed specifically to the question as to whether these prophecies anticipate a revival of Rome politically and religiously.
In approaching this complicated interpretative problem of prophetic Scripture, certain assumptions are implicit in the argument. First of all, the Scriptures must be regarded as an authentic and accurate revelation of future events, that is, prophecy must be taken literally and seriously. The liberal contention that the Bible is unreliable in its prophetic utterances is denied, and the normal, orthodox, evangelical point of view is assumed. To debate the whole issue of the accuracy of prophetic Scripture would be beyond the compass of this article.
Second, the general reasons for supposing that the fourth empire of Daniel’s prophecies is the ancient Roman Empire will be set forth without formally arguing all the points. Obviously, if the fourth empire were not Roman, there is no hope of a future revival of the Roman Empire prophetically. The identification of the fourth empire as Roman was the majority view of biblical scholarship until the rise of modern criticism.
C. F. Keil is typical of conservative expositors when he states: “There yet remains for our consideration the question, What are the historical world-kingdoms which are represented by Nebuchadnezzar’s image (ch. ii ), and by Daniel’s vision of four beasts rising up out of the sea? Almost all interpreters understand that these two visions are to be interpreted in the same way. ‘The four kingdoms or dynasties, which were symbolized (ch. ii ) by the same parts of the human image, from the head to the feet, are the same as those which were symbolized by the four great beasts rising up out of the sea.’ This is the view not only of Bleek, who herein agrees with Auberlen, but also of Kranichfeld and Kliefoth, and all church interpreters.”4 Keil goes on to identify the fourth kingdom as Roman: “These four kingdoms, according to the interpretation commonly received in the church, are the Babylonian, the Medio-Persian, the Macedo-Grecian, and the Roman.”5
With these two major assumptions, the question will be faced as to whether the future form of the kingdom, the ten-nation confederacy anticipated in prophecy, will be a genuine Roman empire in revived form; and if so, how this relates to the ultimate religious character of the end of the age.
The Fourth Empire of Daniel as the Roman Empire
In the prophecies of Daniel, especially Daniel 2 and 7 , prophetically four world empires are set forth. In the image of Daniel 2 the head of gold is related to Babylon by practically all expositors. Most expositors also recognize three other empires in the shoulders of silver, the lower part of the body of bronze, and the legs of iron and the feet part of iron and part of clay.
The similar vision in chapter 7 of Daniel with its four beasts seems to correspond to the same four empires of chapter 2. The great majority of evangelical expositors accept this point of view. Liberals who place the Book of Daniel in the second century, and thereby consider it a pious forgery, deny that the fourth empire is Roman and try to make the entire Book of Daniel to be history.
In contrast to the usual orthodox point of view that the four empires are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome, liberals usually divide the Medo-Persian empire into two empires which, while admittedly historically inaccurate, they claim is the point of view of the writer of Daniel. Hence the fourth empire becomes a Macedonian or Grecian empire of Alexander the Great. They consider Rome an impossibility because to admit that the fourth empire was Rome would be to admit that Daniel predicts accurately the future.
The arguments pro and con on this have been debated for many generations. The several works of Robert Dick Wilson, particularly his Studies in the Book of Daniel, have demonstrated satisfactorily to most evangelicals that the liberal point of view that Daniel is a forgery is unfounded, and with it their arguments against interpreting the fourth empire as Roman. The genuineness of Daniel has been more recently confirmed by the finding of the Book of Daniel among the Dead Sea Scrolls which seems to require a much earlier date for Daniel than the liberals would allow, and accordingly forces recognition of the genuine predictive character of Daniel.
Simply from the standpoint of history it is unthinkable that any genuine prophetic foreview of world history in its political context would omit the Roman Empire, which by all odds was the greatest empire of history. Beginning several centuries before Christ, it continued into the Christian era for almost fifteen centuries, and its total impact upon the world of its day, as well as modern times, is inestimable. The detailed description of the fourth beast of Daniel 7 pictured as a cruel iron beast so precisely corresponds to the ancient Roman empire in its ruthless conquest of many peoples that most expositors who take this passage seriously have assigned it to Rome.
Leupold, in his interpretation of the iron teeth, writes: “That must surely signify a singularly voracious, cruel, and even vindictive world power. Rome could never get enough of conquest. Rivals like Carthage just had to be broken: Carthago delenda est. Rome had no interest in raising the conquered nations to any high level of development. All her designs were imperial; let the nations be crushed and stamped underfoot.”6
The two legs of the image of Daniel 2, likewise, portray the eastern and western divisions of the Roman Empire. The unequal duration of the eastern empire, which continued long after the western empire had fallen apart, is not seen in Daniel’s prophecy because it occurs in the period of the present church age which does not seem to be in Daniel’s foreview. The unfulfilled aspects of the prophecies provide the clue for the future revival of Rome. Any other view has never achieved majority status among evangelicals at least because the prophecies taken literally lead to this conclusion.
While some evangelicals like King interpret the fourth empire as other than Roman,7 usually those who accept the inspiration and genuineness of Daniel identify the fourth kingdom as Roman. The controversy in the main is one between liberals and conservatives. As Keil said long ago: “These four kingdoms, according to the interpretation commonly received in the church, are the Babylonian, the Medio-Persian, the Macedo-Grecian, and the Roman. ‘In this interpretation and opinion,’ Luther observes, ‘all the world are agreed, and history in fact abundantly establishes it.’ This opinion prevailed until about the end of the last century, for the contrary opinion of the individual earlier interpreters had found no favour. But from that time, when faith in the supernatural origin and character of biblical prophecy was shaken by Deism and Rationalism, then as a consequence, with the rejection of the genuineness of the Book of Daniel the reference of the fourth kingdom to the Roman world-monarchy was also denied. For the pseudo-Daniel of the times of the Maccabees could furnish no prophecy which could reach further than the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. If the reference of the fourth kingdom to the Roman Empire was therefore a priori excluded, the four kingdoms must be so explained that the pretended prophecy should not extend further than to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.”8
Is the Ten-Nation Confederacy of the Future Roman?
If the large discussion available in evangelical literature supports the conclusion that the fourth empire of Daniel was Roman, the question remains whether its future revival will also be Roman in character, and whether the Scriptures specifically teach this.
The expositor is here faced with two major alternatives. He can attempt, as many postmillenarians and some amillenarians have done, to find fulfillment of the entire prophecy of the fourth empire of both chapters 2 and 7 of Daniel in history. Under this concept the smiting stone which destroys the image of Daniel 2 is the conquest of the church destroying the Roman Empire, and the ten-nation confederacy of Daniel 7 are ten successive kings of the historic Roman Empire now already fulfilled. There has been a long debate on this, but the issue hangs not on the details, but whether the prophecy should be taken literally. It is rather obvious from history that as a matter of fact the Christian church did not destroy the Roman Empire, and that it actually fell apart for moral and political reasons, but not because of the impact of the church. Certainly there was no sudden destruction as is contemplated by the stone’s smiting the image in the feet in Daniel 2.
The most important problem, however, is that the fourth empire of Daniel is succeeded by an empire brought in by Jesus Christ. It is the advent of the coming King that really destroys the fourth empire. The postmillennial concept that this refers to the first advent of Christ and that the church is gradually conquering the world, with its premise that the kingdom is a spiritual rather than a political kingdom, has come more and more into disfavor. The twentieth century has devastated the optimism of the postmillennial view that the gospel has the power in itself to transform the nations. The premillennial concept is more and more justified, and supports the conclusion that there will be no correction of the world righteously or religiously until Jesus Christ comes back in power and glory. This, according to the premillennial interpretation, means that when Christ comes He will conquer the world by His power and will inaugurate a literal kingdom on earth, the fifth kingdom of Daniel 7, and that this future event is that which concludes the fourth kingdom. The argument, therefore, hinges upon the superiority of the premillennial interpretation of prophecy as opposed to amillennial or postmillennial prophecy. With postmillennialism almost a dead issue in prophetic interpretation, and amillennialism conceding more and more that only the second advent of Christ will solve the world’s problems, it becomes evident that the final form of the fourth kingdom must, therefore, be future, not historic. Even Leupold, an amillenarian, relates the destruction of the fourth beast to the second coming of Christ.9 If so, it argues for a future ten-nation kingdom which is Roman in its political context.
The ten-nation confederacy is anticipated in the feet-stage of the image, and although the toes are not said to be ten in number, this is the implication. More specific details are given in Daniel on the fourth beast of his vision in chapter 7 . There in the latter stage of development the beast is declared to have ten horns. This is interpreted in Daniel 7:24 as “ten kings that shall arise.” Further light is cast on this in Revelation 13 where a beast is seen to come out of the sea having “ten horns.” The fact that the ten-horns stage of the kingdom was still prophetic when the book of Revelation was written clearly makes it either Roman or post-Roman in its historical fulfillment.
The ten-nation confederacy of the future anticipated in these prophecies would naturally be considered a revival of the Roman Empire if for no other reason than that it is portrayed as an integral part of the fourth empire. As far as Daniel and Revelation are concerned, there is no sharp break between the historic and the prophetic, and the present age in which the church is being called out from Jew and Gentile alike is not taken into consideration in Daniel’s foreview. Accordingly, the fourth empire of the past and the future confederacy are looked upon as if they are parts of the same empire. If the fourth empire is Roman, it would follow that the ten-nation confederacy will also be Roman in character, at least from the divine point of view.
A second argument in favor of the identification of the future empire as Roman would come from the geographic evidence that the center of the stage is the Middle East in the end of the age. It is here that the great final world war is fought according to Daniel 11:36-45, confirmed by the reference to Armageddon in Revelation 16:16, and other geographic indications such as the River Euphrates, the city of Jerusalem, and similar geographic factors. If the future activities relating to the ten-nation confederacy are in the Middle East, it would also support the concept that it is a revival of the ancient Roman Empire, at least geographically.
One of the most specific references, however, is found in the difficult prophecy of Daniel in which Israel’s history is unfolded as recorded in Daniel 9:24-27. One of the important factors in this prophecy is Daniel 9:26 where it is stated that after the Messiah or the Anointed One is cut off that “the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.” Although there have been many destructions of Jerusalem, most commentators agree that the fulfillment of this prophecy was in A.D. 70 when the Roman General Titus surrounded the city of Jerusalem, slaughtered its inhabitants, and burned the beautiful temple whose construction had been completed only six years before. If this prince is the same as the little horn (Dan 7:8), who subdues three of the ten nations in the confederacy and assumes control, it would follow from this that the prince who will come, because of his relation to the people who destroyed the city in A.D. 70, will be a Roman prince. This view is far preferable to the interpretation of “the prince that shall come” as a reference to Christ.
Although this does not establish his racial background, and debate continues as to his particular nationality, politically he will be a Roman and will be the final ruler of Roman power in the world until the second coming of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, many expositors identify the prince that shall come as the ultimate world ruler mentioned in Revelation 13 and other passages.
That this is related to end-time events, and therefore either Roman or post-Roman, is confirmed by the reference in the Olivet Discourse where Christ cited the abomination of desolation, prophesied in Daniel 9:27, as being the sign of the beginning of the great tribulation. In the context, Christ relates this to Judea and again fixes the center of events as being in the Middle East. Accordingly, on the basis of the prophecy of Christ and the future anticipations of Revelation 13, the liberal contention that all of this was fulfilled in the second century B.C. becomes completely untenable. In making the prophecy of Matthew 24, Christ also confirms the prophetic accuracy of Daniel, and takes the prediction of the future abomination of desolation, which refers to the desecration of a future temple in Jerusalem, as a literal event of great significance to the people of Israel.
On the basis of the conclusion that the fourth empire of Daniel is Roman, that geographically the future ten-nation confederacy is in the area occupied in history by the Roman Empire, and the specific reference to the prince that shall come as being related to the Roman people, a conclusion can be drawn that there will be a revival of Rome politically, which will fulfill the unfulfilled aspect of the fourth empire, both in Daniel and in Revelation. This leads, then,, to the question as to whether religiously there will also be a revival of Rome.
Revival of Rome Religiously
The classic interpretation of Revelation 17 as offered by the Protestant reformers and many since is that the harlot, the wicked woman who is the symbol of religious power in this chapter , is none other than the Roman Catholic Church in its apostate form.10
While the reformers identified it with the Roman Catholic Church of their day, contemporary Protestant interpreters tend to qualify this identification. Rather than the Roman Catholic Church specifically, the religious entity that is portrayed seems to be a world religion which could conceivably embrace all branches of Christianity—Roman, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant—as well as non-Christian religions.
In the vision given the Apostle John as recorded in Revelation 17, he is invited to see this amazing, wicked woman who is described as sitting “upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns” (Rev 17:3). She is further portrayed as decked in purple and scarlet, with gold and precious stones. The total picture is well adapted to describe religion typified by the woman in alliance with the political which is seen as a scarlet colored beast, identified as the future political power of the end time in Revelation 13:1.
The woman is described according to Revelation 17:5 as having a name: “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” This, of course, gathers in much material referring to Rome politically in that Rome as an empire had borrowed much of its religious system from ancient Babylon, but it also introduces the question as to whether the woman is specifically Roman.
On the basis of the evidence, the identification of the woman of Revelation 17 as being specifically the Roman Catholic Church needs to be qualified. That it includes Romanism could be deduced from the association of the woman with the beast of Revelation 13, which previously has been shown to be the revival of the Roman Empire. Her intimate association with Roman rulers in the end time is further supported by Revelation 17:9-12, even if, for the sake of argument, the “seven mountains” are not a specific reference to the city of Rome, a conclusion which many have challenged. It is, nevertheless, true that the seven kings mentioned in Revelation 17:10 are obviously Roman and that the ten horns representing ten kings in Revelation 17:12 are kings who are part of the ten-nation confederacy which is also Roman. Hence the woman religiously is affiliated with the revived Roman Empire.
To identify the woman as specifically the Roman Catholic Church, however, is to go beyond the Scriptures. Actually, according to Revelation 17:15, the woman is pictured in a place of authority over “people, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” Her sphere of rule is obviously worldwide and goes beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire politically, at least in its earlier stage.
In view of the fact that there does not seem to be any religious opposition to the woman, and her sway seems to be complete except for individual saints whom she persecutes, the evidence seems to support the fact that the woman represents an ecumenical or worldwide church embracing all of Christianity religiously, and therefore including not only the Roman Catholic Church but Protestant and Greek Orthodoxy as well. It should also be observed that the state of the situation is not precisely what is true today, but what will eventuate in the political context of this future period. At that time apparently the apostate religious entity described here will be devoid of any true Christians, and those described as saints will be outside this apostate church and the object of its persecution.
If the religious entity described here is an ecumenical church, it casts new light upon the significance of the ecumenical movement in the world today. At the present time the ecumenical movement, although worldwide, does not embrace all major sections of Christianity. A merger between protestantism, Greek Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church, while contemplated by some, has not been consummated. There is also active opposition religiously to the ecumenical movement based on its theological liberalism and its centralization of ecclesiastical power. If, as many Christians believe, the rapture or the translation of the church will occur before these end-time events, it will mean that genuine Christians today will be removed from the scene before the ecumenical church comes to its completion as pictured here in Revelation 17.
Accordingly, it may be concluded that while the Roman Empire will be specifically revived, fulfilling the last stages of the prophetic anticipations of the fourth empire, the religious characteristics of the end time, while including the Roman Catholic Church and being Roman in its political alliances, will be wider in its inclusion. All branches of apostate Christendom and possibly non-Christian religions will be embraced within its organization. Symbolically this will be a harlot, a wicked woman, utterly opposed to God and a persecutor of true believers.
A dramatic conclusion is revealed according to Revelation 17:16 in that the ten kings destroy the woman. This seems to pave the way for the final form of world religion which will be the worship of the political ruler himself, as revealed in Revelation 13:8 where it is declared “all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him,” except for those who are true believers. The final form of world religion will not even be Christian in name, and will actually be an atheistic, humanistic, satanic system which denies everything related to the true God, and is the persecutor of all who fail to worship the political ruler.
The contemporary reformations in the Roman Catholic Church, which make a merger between Romanism and Protestantism or a merger between Romanism and Greek Orthodoxy more credible, are therefore significant as being a part of the trend toward a world church. The world church as portrayed in Revelation 17 will not actually be consummated in its final form until after the true church, the body of Christ, is caught up to be with the Lord. The present movement in ecumenicalism is therefore significant as another sign that the end of the age may soon be upon the world.
The history of prophetic fulfillment supports the conclusion that prophecy will be fulfilled literally. In keeping with this principle is the belief that there will be a fulfillment of the details of the fourth empire in its final stage which were left unfufilled in history. Hence there will be a revival of Rome politically, and a revival of Rome religiously, which will eventually center both political and religious power in the Middle East and ultimately culminate in a world government and a world religion (Rev 13:7-8). Present trends in this direction are another reminder that the coming of the Lord may be near.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 Cf. James A. Montgomery, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Daniel. Montgomery, in his entire exposition of the Book of Daniel like many modern liberal expositors refuses to recognize any genuine prophetic revelation, and by not taking Scripture literally, and by placing the writing chronologically after the event, finds them fulfilled prior to the emergence of the Roman Empire.
2 John F. Walvoord, “Prophecy of the Ten-Nation Confederacy,” Bibliotheca Sacra, CXXIV (April-June, 1967), 99-105.
3 The Nations in Phophecy, pp. 83-102.
4 C. F. Keil, Biblical Commentary on the Book of Daniel, p. 245.
6 Herbert C. Leupold, Exposition of Daniel, pp. 297-98.
7 Geoffrey R. King, Daniel, pp. 72-73.
8 Keil, ibid., pp. 245-46.
9 Leupold, ibid., p. 308.
10 For an exposition of this chapter, see the author’s The Revelation of Jesus Christ, pp. 243-57.