on Revelation 12 :4
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven - It is not unusual in Scripture, as Dr. Mitchell observes, to call the hindmost of an enemy the tail, as in Joshua 10:19 : Ye shall cut off the hindmost of them, which is literally in Hebrew, וזנבתם אותם "Ye shall cut off their tail." See also Deuteronomy 25:18. It is also observable that the word ουρα, in this verse, has been used by the Greeks in the same sense with the Hebrew word זנב already referred to. Thus ουρα στρατου, which we would translate the rear of an army, is literally the tail of an army. See the Thesaurus of Stephens, in loc. The tail of the dragon is therefore the heathen Roman power in its seventh or last form of government, viz., the imperial power; and is not, as Dr. Mitchell supposes, to be restricted to the last heathen Roman emperors. The heathen imperial power is said to draw the third part of the stars of heaven, by which has generally been understood that the Roman empire subjected the third part of the princes and potentates of the earth. But that this is not a correct statement of the fact is evident from the testimony of ancient history. The Roman empire was always considered and called the empire of the world by ancient writers. See Dionys. Halicar., Antiq. Romans lib. i., prope principium; Pitisci Lexicon Antiq. Roman., sub voc. imperium; Ovidii Fast., lib. ii. l. 683; Vegetius de Revelation Militari, lib. i. c. 1., etc., etc. And it is even so named in Scripture, for St. Luke, in the second chapter of his gospel, informs us that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that The Whole World should be taxed, by which is evidently meant the Roman empire. The whole mystery of this passage consists in the misapprehension of its symbolical language. In order therefore to understand it, the symbols here used must be examined. By heaven is meant the most eminent or ruling part of any nation. This is evident from the very nature of the symbol, for "heaven is God's throne;" they therefore who are advanced to the supreme authority in any state are very properly said to be taken up into heaven, because they are raised to this eminence by the favor of the Lord, and are ministers of his to do his pleasure. And the calamity which fell upon Nebuchadnezzar was to instruct him in this important truth, that the heavens do rule; that is, that all monarchs possess their kingdoms by Divine appointment, and that no man is raised to power by what is usually termed the chances of war, but that "the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men." The meaning of heaven being thus ascertained, it cannot be difficult to comprehend the meaning of earth, this being evidently its opposite, that is, every thing in subjection to the heaven or ruling part. Stars have already been shown to denote ministers of religion; and this is more fully evident from Revelation 1:16 of this book, where the seven stars which the Son of God holds in his right hand are explained to signify the seven angels (or messengers) of the seven Churches, by whom must be meant the seven pastors or ministers of these Churches. The resemblance of ministers to stars is very striking; for as the stars give light upon the earth, so are ministers the lights of the cause they advocate; and their position in heaven, the symbol of domination, very fitly betokens the spiritual authority of priests or ministers over their flocks. Hence, as the woman, or Christian Church, has upon her head a crown of twelve stars, which signifies that she is under the guidance of the twelve apostles, who are the twelve principal lights of the Christian world, so has the dragon also his stars or ministers. The stars therefore which the dragon draws with his tail must represent the whole body of pagan priests, who were the stars or lights of the heathen world. But in what sense can it be said that the heathen Roman empire, which ruled over the whole known world, only draws a third part of the stars of heaven? The answer is: The religious world in the time of St. John was divided into three grand branches, viz., the Christian world, the Jewish world, and the heathen and pagan world: consequently, as a dragon, a fabulous animal, is an emblem of a civil power supporting a religion founded in fable; it necessarily follows that the stars or ministers of the Jews and Christians cannot be numbered among those which he draws with his tail, as they were not the advocates of his idolatry, but were ministers of a religion founded by the God of heaven, and consequently formed no part of the pagan world, though they were in subjection in secular matters to the pagan Roman empire. The tail of the dragon therefore draweth after him the whole heathen world.
And did cast then to the earth - That is, reduced all the pagan priests under the Roman yoke. The words of the prophecy are very remarkable. It is said the tail of the dragon draweth, (for so συρει should be translated), but it is added, and Hath Cast then upon the earth, to show that at the time the Apocalypse was written the world was divided into the three grand religious divisions already referred to; but that the tail of the dragon, or the pagan Roman power under its last form of government, had brought the whole heathen world (which was a third part of the religious world in the apostolic age) into subjection previously to the communication of the Revelation to St. John. It is the dragon's tail that draws the third part of the stars of heaven, therefore it was during the dominion of his last form of government that Christianity was introduced into the world; for in the time of the six preceding draconic forms of government, the world was divided religiously into only two grand branches, Jews and Gentiles. That the sense in which the third part is here taken is the one intended in the prophecy is put beyond all controversy, when it is considered that this very division is made in the first and third verses, in which mention is made of the woman clothed with the sun - the Christian Church, the moon under her feet, or Jewish Church, and the dragon, or heathen power. Thus the heathen Imperial government is doubly represented, first, by one of the seven draconic heads, to show that it was one of those seven heathen forms of government which have been successively at the head of the Roman state; and secondly, by the dragon's tail, because it was the last of those seven. For a justification of this method of interpretation, see on the angel's double explanation of the heads of the beast, Revelation 17:9 (note), Revelation 17:10 (note), Revelation 17:16 (note).
And the dragon stood before the woman, etc. - Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine, abandoned the absurdities of paganism, and treated the Christians with great respect. This alarmed the pagan priests, whose interests were so closely connected with the continuance of the ancient superstitions, and who apprehended that to their great detriment the Christian religion would become daily more universal and triumphant throughout the empire. Under these anxious fears they moved Diocletian to persecute the Christians. Hence began what is termed the tenth and last general persecution, which was the most severe of all, and continued nearly ten years; (see Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History of the Third Century); and as it was the Divine pleasure that, at this time, a great deliverer should be raised up in behalf of his suffering people, the woman, or Christian Church, is very appropriately represented as overtaken with the pangs of labor, and ready to be delivered. Before the death of Constantius, the heathen party, aware that Constantine would follow the example of his father, who so much favored the Christians, beheld him with a watchful and malignant eye. Many were the snares that, according to Eusebius, were laid for him by Maximin and Galerius: he relates the frequent and dangerous enterprises to which they urged him, with the design that he might lose his life. When Galerius heard of the death of Constantius, and that he had appointed Constantine his successor, he was filled with the most ungovernable rage and indignation, notwithstanding he did not dare to take any steps contrary to the interest of Constantine. The dread of the armies of the west, which were mostly composed of Christians, was a sufficient check to all attempts of that kind. Thus the dragon, or heathen power, stood before the woman, or Christian Church, to devour her son, or deliverer, as soon as he was born. See Dr. Mitchell's Exposition of the Revelation, in loc.
on Revelation 12 :4
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven - The word rendered "drew" - συρω surō - means to "draw, drag, haul." Prof. Stuart renders it "drew along"; and explains it as meaning that "the danger is represented as being in the upper region of the air, so that his tail may be supposed to interfere with and sweep down the stars, which, as viewed by the ancients, were all set in the visible expanse or welkin." So Daniel 8:10, speaking of the little horn, says that "it waxed great, even to the host of heaven, and it cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground." See the notes on that passage. The main idea here undoubtedly is that of power, and the object of John is to show that the power of the dragon was as if it extended to the stars, and as if it dragged down a third part of them to the earth, or swept them away with its tail, leaving two-thirds unaffected.
A power that would sweep them all away would be universal; a power that would sweep away one-third only would represent a dominion of that extent only. The dragon is represented as floating in the air - a monster extended along the sky - and one-third of the whole expanse was subject to his control. Suppose, then, that the dragon here was designed to represent the Roman pagan power; suppose that it referred to that power about to engage in the work of persecution, and at a time when the church was about to be greatly enlarged, and to fill the world; suppose that it referred to a time when but one-third part of the Roman world was subject to pagan influence, and the remaining two-thirds were, for some cause, safe from this influence - all the conditions here referred to would be fulfilled. Now it so happens that at a time when the "dragon" had become a common standard in the Roman armies, and had in some measure superseded the eagle, a state of things did exist which well corresponds with this representation.
There were times under the emperors when, in a considerable part of the empire, after the establishment of Christianity, the church enjoyed protection, and the Christian religion was tolerated, while in other parts paganism still prevailed, and waged a bitter warfare with the church. "Twice, at least, before the Roman empire became, divided permanently into the two parts, the Eastern and the Western, there was a "tripartite" division of the empire. The first occurred 311 a.d., when it was divided between Constantine, Licinius, and Maximin; the other 337 a.d., on the death of Constantine, when it was divided between his three sons, Constantine, Constans, and Constantius." "In two-thirds of the empire, embracing its whole European and African territory, Christians enjoyed toleration; in the other, or Asiatic portion, they were still, after a brief and uncertain respite, exposed to persecution, in all its bitterness and cruelty as before" (Elliott). I do not deem it absolutely essential, however, in order to a fair exposition of this passage, that we should be able to refer to minute historical facts with names and dates. A sufficient fulfillment is found if there was a period when the church, bright, glorious, and prosperous, was apparently about to become greatly enlarged, but when the monstrous pagan power still held its sway over a considerable part of the world, exposing the church to persecution. Even after the establishment of the church in the empire, and the favor shown to it by the Roman government, it was long before the pagan power ceased to rage, and before the church could be regarded as safe.
And the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child - To prevent the increase and spread of the church in the world.
on Revelation 12 :4
12:4 And his tail - His falsehood and subtilty. Draweth - As a train. The third part - A very large number. Of the stars of heaven - The Christians and their teachers, who before sat in heavenly places with Christ Jesus. And casteth them to the earth - Utterly deprives them of all those heavenly blessings. This is properly a part of the description of the dragon, who was not yet himself on earth, but in heaven: consequently, this casting them down was between the beginning of the seventh trumpet and the beginning of the third woe; or between the year 847 and the year 947; at which time pestilent doctrines, particularly that of the Manichees in the east, drew abundance of people from the truth. And the dragon stood before the woman, that when she had brought forth, he might devour the child - That he might hinder the kingdom of Christ from spreading abroad, as it does under this trumpet.