“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).
“And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six” (Rev. 13:16–18).
|In order to understand this (often misconstrued) section of Revelation, we must (literally) return to our ABCs. In English, we use Roman letters and Arabic numerals. When we want to spell a number out, we write three. When we want to use a symbol for it, we write 3. We are so used to this system that we hardly ever even reflect on it. It is a very good system, if I may say so.
But Hebrew, Greek and Latin did not work this way. They did not use Arabic symbols for their numbers, but rather used the letters of their own alphabets for both phonetic sounds and for numbers. Thus, in Greek, the first letter alpha (corresponding to our letter a) made its particular vowel sound, but it also represented the numerical value of 1. I trust you are all still with me. This system was common in the ancient world, and is called gematria.
If English had an analogous system, it would be easy to compute the numerical value of our names. For example, my name is Douglas. All we would have to do is add the value of the numbers up: D (4), O (60), U (300), G (7), L (30), A (1), and S (100). The number of my name would therefore be 502. And while this strikes us as odd and contrived (because we don’t do it), it was very common in the ancient world. Greg Bahnsen once pointed out that graffiti at Pompeii has been found that said, “I love her whose number is 542.” There are not enough digits there for it to be her phone number. And the Roman historian Seutonius pointed out (about Nero) that some doggerel poetry was circulating in Rome that pointed out the numerical value of “Nero,” and “murdered his mother” were the same. This was pertinent because Nero had murdered his mother. And because we are talking about a particular intellectual skill set, someone once figured out that if you rearrange the letters of Presbyterians you can spell out Britney Spears. There are always people like this, and so we can be grateful that gematria died out before Facebook was invented.
Now mark this. John knew the name of the person he was thinking of, and he also believed that any reasonably clever member of the churches in Asia would be able to figure it out also. Let the one “with understanding” calculate the identity of the beast. It would be odd in the extreme if young Demetrius of Ephesus stayed up late the night after Revelation was read to their church, and in the morning asked his father who Henry Kissinger might be.
The system John was inviting them to use would have been obvious to them all. But it couldn’t have been too obvious, or else the officials censoring the mail leaving Patmos would have found out that John was writing seditious letters to his churches. The land beast that represented Rome is destroyed in this book. And so John was inviting the readers to transliterate the Greek name Nero Caesar into Hebrew, which the censors would not pick up on. In Hebrew, it would have been Nrwn Qsr. Once the vowel markings were added, as commentator Larry Ball points out, it would have been pronounced as Neron Kaiser.
So what is the numerical value of Nrwn Qsr? As it happens, it is 50 + 200 + 6 + 50+ 100 + 60 + 200 = 666. Nero was the head of the beast who was ruling at the time this revelation was given, and it seems to me that his identity as the sixth head of the seven-headed beast is secure.
It is worth mentioning that in the original, there is nothing like 666 or six six six. The value is found in the sum, in the total. The number given is six hundred and sixty six.
One additional comment should be made about the mark of the beast. The persecution included shutting believers off from the means of sustaining life, using economic chokepoints. You were not allowed to buy or sell unless you were willing to take the mark, or the name, or the number of the name onto your right hand or forehead. This is a diabolical parody of God’s requirement for faithful Jews, who were to bind the law of God on their hand and on their forehead.