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Re 13:18 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.
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.
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.
Bible Usage Not Numerology. Since the Bible is a book of both history and prophecy, the numbers given therein may be either literal or symbolic. The context usually reveals in which sense a number is used. Certain numbers appear often in the Bible in an illustrative, figurative, or symbolic sense, and in such cases an understanding of their significance is vital to an understanding of the text. However, this Bible usage of numbers should not be confused with numerology, in which occult mysticism is attached to figures, their combinations, and numerical totals. Numerology apparently had its origin in ancient Babylon and, along with other forms of divination, comes under divine condemnation.—De 18:10-12.
In the following we will discuss a few of the figurative uses of certain numbers that are used prominently in the Bible.
Six. This number at times represents imperfection. The number of “the wild beast” is 666 and is called “a man’s number,” indicating that it has to do with imperfect, fallen man, and it seems to symbolize the imperfection of that which is represented by “the wild beast.” The number six being emphasized to a third degree (the six appearing in the position of units, tens, and hundreds) therefore highlights the imperfection and deficiency of that which the beast represents, or pictures.—Re 13:18.
No longer are the holy heavens afflicted by the presence of Satan and his demons. Those wicked spirits have been ousted from heaven and confined to the vicinity of the earth. This no doubt accounts for the tremendous growth of spiritistic practices in modern times. The wily Serpent still maintains a corrupt spirit organization. But does he also use a visible organization in order to mislead mankind? John tells us: “And I saw a wild beast ascending out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, and upon its horns ten diadems, but upon its heads blasphemous names. Now the wild beast that I saw was like a leopard, but its feet were as those of a bear, and its mouth was as a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave to the beast its power and its throne and great authority.”—Revelation 13:1b, 2.
The wild beast has a name, and this name is a number: 666. Six, as a number, is associated with Jehovah’s enemies. A Philistine man of the Rephaim was of “extraordinary size,” and his “fingers and toes were in sixes.” (1 Chronicles 20:6) King Nebuchadnezzar erected a golden image 6 cubits in breadth and 60 cubits high, to unify his political officials in one worship. When God’s servants refused to worship the image of gold, the king had them thrown into a fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:1-23) The number six falls short of seven, which stands for completeness from God’s standpoint. Therefore, a triple six represents gross imperfection.
A name identifies a person. So how does this number identify the beast? John says that it “is a man’s number,” not that of a spirit person, so the name helps to confirm that the wild beast is earthly, symbolizing human government. Just as six fails to measure up to seven, so 666—six to the third degree—is a fitting name for the world’s gigantic political system that fails so miserably to measure up to God’s standard of perfection. The world’s political wild beast rules supreme under the name-number 666, while big politics, big religion, and big business keep that wild beast functioning as an oppressor of mankind and a persecutor of God’s people.