Revelation is one of those dramas where hero and villain keep missing each other. It is like Henry IV: We know Hal and Hotspur will eventually square off, and can’t wait for them to get down to it. It is like Hamlet, where Claudius and Hamlet dance their complicated dance, teasing and testing one another by indirection, until the final awful catastrophe.
Revelation is like that. A victorious Lion-Lamb steps onto the stage early on and makes brief appearances afterwards (Revelation 5, 14), but never when the dragon is around. Jesus is the male child born to the heavenly mother, but as soon as he ascends to heaven, Satan is served his eviction notice and all his stuff is piled up on an earthly curb (Revelation 12). Jesus is the Son of Man, equipped with mouth-sword and flaming eyes, looking like someone who can take care of business, but when he shows up he’s more a farmer than a warrior, harvesting first fruits and then returning to heaven on a cloud (Revelation 14).
Meanwhile, monsters gang up on the saints—dragon, beast, another beast, image of the beast, harlot, horns and kings, kings that are horns and horns that are kings. Corpses of the saints pile up, and martyrs shed enough blood to fill a harlot’s chalice. If this book is going to satisfy our dramatic expectations, there has to be a showdown before the curtain falls.
Revelation encourages us to think the face-off will happen. The sixth bowl dries up the Euphrates, allowing eastern kings to cross into the land to confront an army assembled by three frog demons vomited from the mouths of the dragon and beasts (Revelation 16). It is the great day of God Pantokrator, with everyone eager to fight to the death at Har-Magedon. And . . .
Nothing happens. It’s a feint. Not a shot is fired. We move on to a seventh seal, an earthquake, and the fall of Babylon. The armies are left on the field, waiting to begin.
The battle scene in chapter 17 is as frustratingly abortive. The angel explains that the horns of the beast that carries the harlot are kings who have authority to “wage war against the Lamb.” But again, nothing happens, though we learn that the “Lamb will overcome them.” We are rapidly hustled away from the battle scene to another view of the harlot. Not that prostitution is uninteresting, but we do wish John—or the director of special effects—would finish what he starts.
Finally, in chapter 19, John does give us the mano a mano clash we have been hoping for, but there’s not much to it. The Rider on the White Horse (Jesus again, after another costume change) seizes the sea beast and false prophet and casts them into the lake of fire. It’s over before it begins, but at least we know that Jesus has seen the beasts through his flaming eyes. When the dragon makes his final-final appearance, he’s overthrown by fire from heaven (Revelation 20). Jesus doesn’t even bother to make an appearance.
It’s hard to have a dramatic fight when one of the contestants is omnipotent. When all is said and done, Satan can’t mount much opposition. The devil as dragon? God flicks him away like a gnat. The truly dramatic contests are between the monsters and the saints. The real drama is whether, or when, the omnipotent God will come to the rescue.
We begin to suspect John’s teasers are a stylistic habit. Jesus mentions a “new Jerusalem” in the message to Philadelphia, but the holy city doesn’t descend from heaven for nearly twenty chapters. A beast rises from the abyss to kill the two witnesses, two chapters before the beast is introduced in person. An angel flies across midheaven announcing the fall of the drunk whore Babylon, but we don’t actually meet the harlot until we see her riding across the wilderness on the back of one of those beasts.
There’s another theological conviction behind John’s tendency to introduce characters and events long before he intends to describe or explain. Revelation is a book of unveiling, where things glimpsed from the foundation of the world are shown in full. John replicates the long arc of history by first offering glimpses and then full revelations. He veils even as he unveils, leaving us waiting for a further unveiling.
John forces us into an eschatological mode of reading, reading by hope, reading that reaches always ahead. John flashes a frame or two of something of great pith and moment, then lets it disappear. The subliminal seed is planted, and we read on, expectantly, hopefully, eager for it to sprout. We readers see a flash of glory, and then are left to wait in darkness until that glory appears. The experience of reading the Apocalypse trains us in the very expectant, patient hope we need to stand firm when the crisis hits.