In Revelation 16:12, it says, “The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, so that the way of the kings from the east might be prepared.”1 The verses that follow tell us that spirits of demons gather the kings of the Earth together for the battle of that great day of God Almighty in a place called in Hebrew Armageddon. What is the meaning of the River Euphrates drying up? Who are the kings of the east? And where and what is Armageddon?
Most evangelical Protestants today believe that Armageddon will be a gigantic world war centering in the Middle East. “Hundreds of millions of men,” writes John F. Walvoord, “will be involved in a gigantic world power struggle centered in the Holy Land (Rev. 16:13-16). The area will become the scene of the greatest war of history. Great armies from the south, representing the millions of Africa, will pour into the battle arena (Dan. 11:44; Rev. 9:15, 16; 16:12). Locked in this deadly struggle, millions of men will perish in the greatest war of all history. This is what the Bible describes as Armageddon. Before the war is finally resolved and the victor determined, Jesus Christ will come back in power and glory from heaven.”2
Many Seventh-day Adventists in the past held a similar view. Considering modern warfare with intercontinental ballistic missiles, however, it seems somewhat antiquated to send millions of men into one battlefield in the Middle East.
To understand Revelation 16:12-16, we need to go back to the Old Testament. In Daniel 5, Belshazzar, coregent with his father Nabonidus, king of Babylon, gives a banquet (vs. 1). Suddenly, a hand is seen writing something on the wall of the banquet hall (vs. 5). No one can understand what the writing means. Eventually Daniel is called (vss. 11, 13), who then explains the meaning of the handwriting on the wall: “‘Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians’” (vs. 28). In verse 30, history adds a footnote, “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain.”
But how did the Persians in 539 B.C. conquer that seemingly impregnable city of Babylon, surrounded by a wall and a moat? The Greek historian Herodotus, who was born about 50 years after the fall of Babylon, recounts in The Histories that the Persian King Cyrus diverted the river Euphrates into a marshland, thereby reducing the depth of water in the riverbed. This allowed them to get into the city by way of the river bed and surprise the inhabitants. Herodotus wrote, “The Babylonians themselves say that owing to the great size of the city the outskirts were captured without the people in the centre knowing anything about it; there was a festival going on, and even while the city was falling they continued to dance and enjoy themselves, until hard facts brought them to their senses.”3
The river “dried up,” so to speak, and the Persians, who came from the east of Babylon, were able to capture the city. For the captive Jews in Babylon, Cyrus was their deliverer from the Babylonian captivity—the messiah, because when Cyrus had conquered the kingdom of Babylon, he allowed the Jews to return to their homeland Israel (Ezra 1:1-4)
Armageddon is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word harmageddon. The word harmageddon literally means “mountain of Megiddo.”
But which mountain is the mountain of Megiddo? Again to return to the Old Testament, in Judges 4 and 5 is the story of Deborah, Barak, and Sisera, who was the general of the Canaanite king Jabin of Hazor in the north of Israel.
Because of their idolatry, the Lord allowed Jabin to oppress the Israelites for 20 years (Judges 4:1-3). Toward the end of this period, the prophetess Deborah sent for Barak, a military leader from Kedesh in Naphtali, and told him to take ten thousand men up on Mount Tabor because the Lord was going to give Jabin’s army into his hands (vss. 6, 7). Barak, however, hesitated; he did not want to go into battle without the prophetess, i.e., without God’s presence. She agreed to go with him, but she told him, “‘There will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman’” (vs. 9). So Barak and Deborah with ten thousand men went up Mount Tabor.
“And they reported to Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor” (vs. 12). Mount Tabor is opposite Megiddo across the plain of Jezreel. When Sisera and his troops crossed the plain of Jezreel, the Lord sent a heavy rainstorm, which caused the chariots of Sisera to get stuck in the mud. Barak and his ten thousand men came down from Mount Tabor. “And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak” (vs. 15). This victory on the plain of Jezreel became a symbol for God’s deliverance of His people.
This background from Daniel 5 and Judges 4 and 5 sheds light on Revelation 16. This chapter contains a number of symbols:
● The Euphrates symbolizes the nations supporting spiritual Babylon (Rev. 17:15). The drying up indicates that in the time of the sixth plague, the support for spiritual Babylon will disappear.
● The term “kings of the east” is an allusion to Cyrus the Great and Darius the Mede (Dan. 5:30), who delivered Israel from Babylon. In the time of the seventh plague, Christ and His angels, the true kings of the East, will deliver God’s people from their enemies.
● The evil spirits are demonic forces.
● The “dragon” represents Satan (Rev. 12:9).
● The “first beast” is a symbol of the papacy (13:1-10).
● The “false prophet” is the same power as the second beast of Revelation 13, i.e., apostate Protestantism (13:13; 19:20).
In Isaiah 45:1, Cyrus is “the anointed” or the messiah who was called from the east, “‘Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—to subdue nations before him and loose the armor of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut’” (vs. 1). Earlier in the book, he is referred to as the one coming from the east, “‘Who raised up one from the east? Who in righteousness called him to His feet? Who gave the nations before him, and made him rule over kings? Who gave them as the dust to his sword, as driven stubble to his bow?’” (41:2). In these prophecies, Cyrus is a type of Christ, who will deliver His people in the end of time. A comparison of Isaiah 41–46 and Revelation 16 shows the typological connection:
Isaiah 41–46 Revelation 16
Literal Israel Spiritual Israel
Literal captivity Spiritual captivity
Literal Babylon Spiritual Babylon
Literal “coming out” Spiritual “coming out”
Literal Euphrates Spiritual Euphrates
Human messiah: Cyrus Divine Messiah: Jesus
Study of the Old Testament background to Revelation 16 indicates that Armageddon is not a literal place. Megiddo was on one side of the plain of Jezreel, but it was from a mountain on the opposite side, previously designated by God, that Israel proceeded to victory against the host that God said would be gathered against them in that valley. Thus, the 144,000 of the Israel of God in the time of the sixth plague, like the 10,000 of Israel of old on the sides of Mount Tabor, are to look to God for deliverance from their oppressors. They are to take their stand upon the mountains of faith and obedience that overlook the valley of deliverance.
By permitting the dragon to work his will in gathering the whole world in a united effort to crush the saints during the sixth plague, God faces His enemies in Armageddon. The whole Earth will be the field of contest. Therefore, wherever throughout the world the saints are surrounded by their enemies, there will be the place called Armageddon.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.