From time immemorial, mankind has observed the characteristics and habits of animals and has applied them in a figurative or symbolic sense to persons, peoples, governments, and organizations. The Bible makes good use of this effective means of illustration. Examples pertaining to the figurative use of the qualities residing in an animal, or suggested by its characteristics, are listed in the accompanying charts.
Beasts as Symbols of Governments. Certain major world powers of history appear directly in the Biblical record, and all of these, as well as other nations, have used animals as symbols of their governments. In Egypt, the serpent figured prominently, the uraeus, the sacred asp, appearing on the headdress of the Pharaohs. However, Egypt was also represented by the bull, as was Assyria. Medo-Persia used the eagle (the shields of the Medes bore the golden eagle; the Persians bore an eagle fixed to the end of a lance). Athens was designated by the owl; Rome, the eagle; Great Britain is designated by the lion; the United States, the eagle. From the most remote times China has been symbolized by the dragon. Well known is the German “two-headed eagle.”
The Wild Beasts of Daniel and of Revelation. That the beasts described in these books represent political kingdoms or governments, exercising rulership and authority, is clearly stated. (Da 7:6, 12, 23; 8:20-22; Re 16:10; 17:3, 9-12) A consideration of the Biblical passages reveals that, while these political ‘wild beasts’ vary in symbolic form, yet all have certain characteristics in common. All are shown as standing in opposition to God’s rule by the Messianic Kingdom over mankind. They are also depicted as in opposition to God’s “holy ones,” his covenant people, first the Jewish nation, then the Christian congregation. Those specifically named (Medo-Persia and Greece) were major world powers, and the great size attributed to the others or the description of their actions indicates that these too were not minor kingdoms. (It may be noted that subordinate kingdoms are symbolized by horns in some cases.) All the beasts are represented as very aggressive, seeking the dominant position over the nations or peoples within the reach of their power.—Compare Da 7:17, 18, 21; 8:9-11, 23, 24; Re 13:4-7, 15; 17:12-14.
Many commentators endeavor to limit the fulfillment of the visions of the beasts in the book of Daniel so that it does not extend beyond the time when Jesus Christ was on the earth, at which time the Roman Empire was the dominant power. The prophecies themselves, however, make plain that they extend beyond that time. The final forms of the beasts are shown as reaching down to the ‘arrival of the definite time for God’s holy ones to take possession of the kingdom’ in “the appointed time of the end.” Then the Messiah destroys such beastly opposition for all time. (Da 7:21-27; 8:19-25; compare also Re 17:13, 14; 19:19, 20.) It may be noted that Christ Jesus expressly foretold that opposition to the Messianic Kingdom would continue into the time of the end, so that his disciples then preaching that Kingdom would be “objects of hatred by all the nations.” (Mt 24:3, 9-14) This obviously does not allow for any nation, particularly world powers, to be excluded from possible identification with the final forms or expressions of the symbolic wild beasts.
Daniel’s vision of the beasts out of the sea. After Egypt and Assyria had finished their respective periods of dominance, and toward the close of the Babylonian Empire, Jehovah God gave Daniel a vision of “four huge beasts” coming up out of the vast sea. (Da 7:1-3) Isaiah 57:20 likens persons alienated from God to the sea, saying: “But the wicked are like the sea that is being tossed, when it is unable to calm down, the waters of which keep tossing up seaweed and mire.”—See also Re 17:15.
Bible commentators regularly link this vision with that of the colossal image in the second chapter of Daniel. As a comparison of chapters 2 and 7 shows, there are definite similarities. The colossal image had four principal parts or sections, to compare with the four beasts. The metals of the image began with the most precious, gold, and became successively inferior, while the beasts began with the majestic lion. In both visions the fourth part, or “kingdom,” receives particular consideration, shows the greatest complexity of form, introduces new elements, and continues down till the time when divine judgment is executed upon it for standing in opposition to God’s rule.
Briefly the four beasts were: a lion, first having eagle’s wings, then losing them and taking on human qualities; a bear (a less majestic and more ponderous creature than the lion), devouring much flesh; a leopard with four wings (adding to its great speed) and four heads; and a fourth wild beast not corresponding to any actual animal, unusually strong, with large iron teeth, ten horns, and another horn developing with eyes and “a mouth speaking grandiose things.” Much of the chapter relates to the fourth beast and its unusual horn. While each beast was “different from the others,” this was especially true of the fourth one.—Da 7:3-8, 11, 12, 15-26.
In the last quarter of the seventh century B.C.E., Babylon became the dominant power in the Middle East. The Babylonian kingdom swiftly extended its domain over Syria and Palestine, overthrowing the kingdom of Judah with its line of Davidic rulers who sat on the glorious throne of Jehovah in Jerusalem. (1Ch 29:23) It may be observed that, when warning Judah of its impending fall to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah likened the future conqueror to ‘a lion going up out of a thicket.’ (Jer 4:5-7; compare 50:17.) After the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah said that Babylon’s forces had been “swifter than the eagles” in their pursuit of the Judeans. (La 4:19) History shows that Babylon’s expansion, at one time reaching as far as Egypt, before long came to a halt, and in the latter part of the empire, Babylon’s rulers showed little of the earlier aggressiveness.
Babylon fell to the Medo-Persian kingdom, with its heartland in the hills to the east of the plains of Mesopotamia. The Medo-Persian Empire was quite different from the Semitic Babylonian Empire, being the first Japhetic (or Aryan) power to gain the dominant position in the Middle East. The Jews, though allowed to return to Judah, continued as a subject people under the Medo-Persian yoke. (Ne 9:36, 37) This empire showed an even greater appetite for territory than had the Babylonian, extending its domain from “India to Ethiopia.”—Es 1:1.
Medo-Persia’s domination was ended by the lightning conquest of the Grecian forces headed by Alexander the Great. In a few short years he built up an empire that embraced parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. This was the first European-based power to hold such a position. After Alexander’s death his generals struggled for control of the empire, four of them eventually gaining the rulership of different sections. Palestine was fought over by the rival Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms.
The Grecian Empire was eventually taken over completely by Rome. The Roman Empire surpassed all the preceding empires not only in the extent of its domain (covering the entire Mediterranean area and in time reaching to the British Isles) but also in the efficiency of its military machine and the firmness of its application of Roman law to the provinces of its far-flung empire. Rome, of course, was the political instrument used to execute the Messiah, Christ Jesus, as well as to persecute the early Christian congregation. The empire extended for nearly a thousand years thereafter in different forms but eventually broke up into various nations, with Britain finally gaining the dominant position.
Historian H. G. Wells makes the following interesting observations on the distinctiveness of the Roman Empire: “Now this new Roman power which arose to dominate the western world in the second and first centuries B.C. was in several respects a different thing from any of the great empires that had hitherto prevailed in the civilised world. It was not at first a monarchy, and it was not the creation of any one great conqueror. . . . It was the first republican empire that escaped extinction and went on to fresh developments. . . . Its population was less strongly Hamitic and Semitic than that of any preceding empire. . . . It was so far a new pattern in history, it was an expanded Aryan republic. . . . It was always changing. It never attained to any fixity. In a sense the [administrative] experiment failed. In a sense the experiment remains unfinished, and Europe and America to-day are still working out the riddles of world-wide statecraft first confronted by the Roman people.”—The Pocket History of the World, 1943, pp. 149-151.
The ram and the male goat. In the vision Daniel received two years later (Da 8:1), the powers represented by the two symbolic beasts involved are clearly named. The kingdom of Medo-Persia is here pictured as a male sheep (a ram) having two horns, the taller horn coming up afterward. History shows that the Medes first were the stronger, and the Persians thereafter gained the ascendancy, though both peoples remained united in a dual power. A he-goat, moving very fast across the earth, symbolized the world power of Greece. (Da 8:3-8, 20, 21) The prophetic vision shows that the goat’s “great horn” located between its eyes, representing the first king, was broken “as soon as it became mighty,” and four kingdoms resulted, though of inferior strength. (Da 8:5, 8, 21, 22) The rapid conquest of the Medo-Persian Empire by Alexander has already been commented on, as well as the division of his kingdom among four of his generals.
It is worthy of mention here that the same nation or its rulers may be represented by different animal symbols in different prophecies. Thus, the kings of Assyria and Babylon are represented by lions at Jeremiah 50:17, while at Ezekiel 17:3-17 the rulers of Babylon and Egypt are pictured by great eagles. Ezekiel elsewhere likens Egypt’s Pharaoh to a “great sea monster” lying in the Nile canals. (Eze 29:3) Hence the fact that Medo-Persia and Greece are represented by certain symbolisms in Daniel chapter 8 does not eliminate the possibility of their being represented by other symbolisms in the earlier vision (Da 7) nor in subsequent prophecies.
The seven-headed wild beast out of the sea. In the vision had by the apostle John and recorded at Revelation 13, a seven-headed, ten-horned wild beast comes up out of the sea, leopardlike, yet with feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion. It is thus a composite form of several of the symbols appearing in Daniel’s vision of the four beasts. The dragon, identified at Revelation 12:9 as Satan the Devil, gives the beast its authority and power. (Re 13:1, 2) This beast’s seven heads (bearing ten horns) distinguish it from the one-headed beasts of Daniel’s vision. Seven (and ten) are commonly acknowledged as Biblical symbols of completeness. (See NUMBER, NUMERAL.) This is corroborated by the extent of this beast’s domain, for it exercises authority, not over one nation or a group of nations, but “over every tribe and people and tongue and nation.” (Re 13:7, 8; compare 16:13, 14.) Noting these factors, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible comments: “The first of these beasts [of Re 13] combines in itself the joint characteristics of the four beasts of Daniel’s vision . . . Accordingly, this first beast represents the combined forces of all political rule opposed to God in the world.”—Edited by G. Buttrick, 1962, Vol. 1, p. 369.
Two-horned beast. Then John saw a beast out of the earth with two horns like those of a harmless lamb, yet speaking as a dragon, exercising the full authority of the first wild beast, just described. It directs making an image of the globally ruling seven-headed beast, putting all persons under compulsion to accept its “mark.”—Re 13:11-17.
It may be recalled that the two-horned ram of Daniel chapter 8 represented a dual power, Medo-Persia. Of course, that power had long since disappeared by the apostle John’s day, and his vision was of things yet future. (Re 1:1) Other dual powers have existed since John’s day, but among these the historical association of Britain and the United States is particularly notable and of long duration.
The other notable characteristic of the two-horned beast, its speaking like a dragon, recalls the “mouth speaking grandiose things” on the outstanding horn of the fourth beast of Daniel 7 (vss 8, 20-26); while its ‘misleading’ earth’s inhabitants compares with the deception practiced by the ‘fierce king’ described at Daniel 8:23-25.—Re 13:11, 14.
The scarlet-colored wild beast. At Revelation 17 the apostle records his vision of a scarlet-colored beast with seven heads and ten horns, mounted by the symbolic woman “Babylon the Great.” This beast thus resembles, or is in the image of, the first beast of Revelation 13 but is distinct because of its scarlet color and the fact that no crowns are seen on its ten horns. Beholding the beast, John is told that five of the seven kings represented by the seven heads had already fallen, while one existed at that time, and the seventh was yet to come. The scarlet-colored beast itself is an eighth king but springs from or is a product of the previous seven. The “ten kings” represented by the ten horns exist and exercise authority in association with the scarlet beast for a short time. Warring against the Lamb, Jesus Christ, and those with him, they go down in defeat.—Re 17:3-5, 9-14.
Some scholars would apply this vision to pagan Rome, and the seven heads to seven emperors of Rome, followed by an eighth emperor. They disagree, however, as to which emperors should be included. The Bible itself does not mention more than three Roman emperors by name, with a fourth (Nero) being mentioned under the title of “Caesar.” Other scholars understand the “heads” or “kings” to represent world powers, as in the book of Daniel. It is noteworthy that the Bible does name five world powers in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece, while the Greek Scriptures name a sixth, Rome, ruling in John’s day. While this would leave the seventh ‘king’ unnamed, the fact that it had not yet appeared when John recorded the Revelation would allow for such anonymity. The eighth king, the symbolic scarlet beast, in some way unites in itself these seven heads while at the same time springing from them.
[Chart on page 268]
SYMBOLISM OF DESIRABLE THINGS
CHARACTERISTIC OR QUALITY
Ability to do hard work
Tribe of Issachar lending itself to labor (Ge 49:14, 15)
Strength, power (Job 39:9-11)
Power, attribute of “living creature” near Jehovah’s throne (Re 4:7)
Bull, young (calf)
Jesus Christ as a sacrifice (Heb 9:11-14)
Lovableness, beauty, innocence
God’s servants innocent, not lawbreakers (Mt 10:16)
Jehovah’s people being gathered (Isa 60:8)
Wisdom, attribute of “living creature” near Jehovah’s throne (Re 4:7)
Power of flight
Some fish clean according to the Law (Le 11:9)
People fine, righteous, suitable for the Kingdom (Mt 13:47-50)
Gazelle (and related animals)
Shepherd lover of the Shulammite (Ca 2:9)
Speed of Gadite warriors (1Ch 12:8)
Jesus Christ as a sacrifice (Heb 9:11-14)
Protectiveness of young
Tribe of Naphtali swift in battle (Ge 49:21)
One’s own wife (Pr 5:19)
Horned snake (serpent)
Tribe of Dan, competent rear guard of Israel (Ge 49:17)
Majesty, courage, destructiveness to enemies
Justice, attribute of “living creature” near Jehovah’s throne (Re 4:7)
Jehovah’s people (Mic 5:8)
Cautiousness (Ge 3:1)
God’s servants cautious (Mt 10:16)
Sacrificial animal; meekness, docility, gregariousness
Persons who do good toward Christ’s spiritual brothers, and who enter into Kingdom blessings (Mt 25:32-34)
Tribe of Benjamin, fighter against God’s enemies (Ge 49:27)
[Chart on pages 270, 271]
SYMBOLISM OF THAT WHICH IS BAD AND UNDESIRABLE
CHARACTERISTIC OR QUALITY
Animals in general
Lack of reasoning
Strong sexual desire
Faithless Judah in turning to Assyria and Egypt (Eze 23:20)
Wicked rulers (Pr 28:15)
Medo-Persian World Power (Da 7:5)
Wicked enemies of David (Ps 22:12)
Aimless seeking of fulfillment of desire
Israel’s unfaithful seeking after pagan nations and their gods (Jer 2:23)
Viciousness, uncleanness, operating in packs, unsatisfied in sexual desire
Worthless individual (2Sa 16:9)
Wicked shepherds of Israel (Isa 56:10, 11)
Ancient Jewish view of uncircumcised Gentiles (Mt 15:26, 27)
Apostates (2Pe 2:22)
Easily distracted, unstable, simpleminded
Ten-tribe kingdom of Israel (Ho 7:11)
Devouring, crushing, swallowing
Satan the Devil (Re 12:9)
King of Babylon (Jer 51:34, ftn)
Some fish unclean according to the Law (Le 11:10-12)
Wicked persons, unsuitable for Kingdom (Mt 13:47-50)
Treacherous King Herod Antipas (Lu 13:32)
Stubbornness, independent disposition, tendency to butt
Usefulness in battle (Job 39:19-25)
Strong sexual desire
Sex-mad Israelites of Jeremiah’s day (Jer 5:8)
Rapidity of Chaldean conquest (Hab 1:8)
Grecian World Power (Da 7:6)
Fierce, rapacious, predatory
Wicked enemies of David (Ps 22:13)
Babylonian World Power (Da 7:4)
Kings of Assyria and Babylon (Jer 50:17)
Devil (1Pe 5:8)
Cunning, deceptiveness (2Co 11:3)
Satan the Devil (Re 12:9)
Apostates (2Pe 2:22)
Ferocity, rapacity, viciousness, craftiness
False prophets (Mt 7:15)
Wicked, false Christians; false teachers (Ac 20:29)
Wicked men of the world (Mt 10:16)
Low, weak, insignificant
God’s nation Israel (Jacob) weak in itself, strong by Jehovah’s power (Isa 41:13-15)
Craving sexual satisfaction from any quarter
Israel unfaithfully seeking after pagan nations and their gods (Jer 2:24)