Yesterday’s post was meant as background to this brief discussion about the meaning of the “number of the beast” in the book of Revelation. Remember: I’m talking about “gematria” as a way of interpreting words by understanding their letters as numbers. Yesterday I tried to explain the symbolism of the beast in Rev. 17. To make best sense of what I have to say now, it would probably help to see that post. But it’s not required reading and will not be on the Final Exam.
Four chapters earlier are given a description of another beast, one which in fact bears a remarkable resemblance to the one that shows up in ch. 17. According to chap. 13, this other beast arises from the sea and has ten horns and many heads. One of its heads receives a mortal wound that is then healed. The entire world follows this beast, which is empowered by the dragon (i.e., the Devil, 12:9). The beast makes war on the saints and conquers them (13:7). It has power over all the nations of earth (13:7-8), exploiting the nations of the world economically (13:17) and demanding to be worshiped (13:15). The author concludes his description of this mortal enemy of God with a final identifying mark, given for those “with understanding.” The number of the beast is 666 (13:18).
Interpreters have offered numerous conjectures over the years to explain this number (probably more than six hundred and sixty-six of them). Most of these interpreters have been concerned to show that the beast had finally arisen in their own day. Rarely are these interpretations put forth as conjectures, of course, but almost always with the confidence of those who have the “inside scoop.” Just since the middle of the past century, for example, Christian preachers, televangelists, and authors over the years have suggested such tantalizing and diverse candidates as …
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