“Land” and “Sea” in Revelation

Frequently commentators take the reference to “earth” in Revelation to mean the whole world, or at least the whole inhabited world. It is better, however, to see the meaning of “earth” in Revelation as “land,” that is, the land of Israel. Specifically, the “earth” refers to the Circumcision party, the Judaizers that plagued the first-century Church with their heresy, drawing away many and creating a crisis in the churches of the time. It isn’t until the Circumcision is destroyed with the False Harlot/Babylon that the term “earth” comes to refer to the whole world (Rev. 21-22).

This meaning for the term “earth” is established early in the book, in the first chapter. Jesus is said to be the “ruler of kings on earth,” (Rev. 1:5). He is coming soon on the clouds, and every eye will see Him, “even those who pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail,” (Rev. 1:7). This is a coming in judgment, and it is a judgment against those who are persecuting the Church in this period, namely apostate Israel. St. John is referencing the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 (and behind it, Daniel 7), when Jesus promises the disciples that a sign will appear that the Son of Man is enthroned in heaven, and at this sign “all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). Contextually, Jesus is speaking to Israel. The sign that Jesus is enthroned in heaven is the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The “tribes of the earth” that will mourn over this event are not the universal tribes, tongues, peoples and nations that refer to the Gentile tribes throughout the book of Revelation. These Gentiles are more likely to rejoice at the destruction of Jerusalem; Vespasian, the Roman General responsible for the leveling of Jerusalem, was handsomely rewarded for it. Rather, these tribes of the “earth” are far more likely the twelve tribes of the Land. Later, when Babylon/Jerusalem is finally destroyed (Rev. 16-17), these same tribes of the “earth” mourn and grieve over the destruction (Rev. 18). This understanding gives us a better sense of Revelation’s Israel-centric visions.

Another clue to the identity of the people of the “earth” comes from Revelation 6:10. The martyrs cry out to God, “how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” This is not a generalized desire for vengeance from Christian martyrs of every age, but a specific request to Jesus to fulfill what He promised in the gospels. In His climactic confrontation with the Pharisees in the Temple, Jesus says He has sent prophets and scribes and wise men to Israel, whom they have killed (Matt. 23:34); this was done so that all the righteous blood shed “on the earth/land” from Abel to Zechariah might come upon them (Matt. 23:35). This punishment for the murder of God’s people would come upon “this generation,” (Matt. 23:36), in the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37-24:51). The souls of the martyrs under the altar in Revelation are asking that Jesus bring this judgment upon “those who dwell on the earth,” but the meaning is clearly to the land of Israel.

This becomes an important hermeneutic device, because the uses of the “earth” which follow must be understood as referring to the land of Israel. When the stars fall, it is not to the whole earth, but to the Land, like the winter fruit of a fig tree shaken by a storm (Rev. 6:13). The pairing here is between stars falling to earth and fruit falling from a fig tree in a storm, just as the fig tree of Israel would be shaken by the storm of judgment. This is a vision of the Judiazing/Circumcision corruption of Israel, spurred, ultimately says the unveiling of Jesus, by Satan.

Even the “Kings of the earth” are actually the Kings of the land, the corrupt priesthood/ruling class. Zechariah prophesied that the High Priest would wear the Davidic crown until the Messiah would come to take it back. Israel’s powerful ruling class of priest-kings refused to turn over either their Kingship or Priesthood to Christ. It is this ruling class which Revelation says are thrown down and seek refuge against the coming judgment in the caves and rocks (Rev. 6:13). When Satan falls from heaven at the ascension of Christ, he falls to the land and takes up residence there, tormenting apostate Israel (Rev. 9:1, 3-6; compare with Luke 10:18-20; 11:21-26). The beast that rises from the “earth” actually rises from the Land; this is a Jewish beast (Rev. 13).

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