Thursday, March 15, 2012

Skin for skin

1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while (Rev 20:1-3
8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:8-12).
4 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. 5 But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life” (2:4-6).

Job furnishes a striking example of how Satan can do a lot of damage to God’s people, yet act under very specific constraints. That’s a scriptural illustration and possible precedent for how the devil can still be quite active in church history, yet his sphere of action is under very definite divine restrictions. Harmful in some respects yet harmless in others. Precisely delimited by God. 


  1. Steve,

    I don't believe this works. For example, a more fitting Revelation parallel with Job that illustrates God's sovereign restraint would have been:

    “They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone” (Rev 9:5)

    The language of Satan's binding in Revelation 20, instead, conveys complete restraint, not partial. That seems to be the natural reading.

  2. Thanks, Alan. The problem I have with that objection is that the apocalyptic genre is prone to hyperbolic contrasts. Absolute polarities and dualities. So we have to make allowance for that rhetorical overstatement.

  3. In our specific instance, the language conveys a complete restraint: "bottomless pit and a great chain," "bound him for a thousand years," "shut it and sealed it over him," "not deceive the nations _any longer_."

    If the text intends a "partial restraint" it is odd that John would use such expressions. So I disagree that it is hyperbolic. Hyperbole cannot be simply assumed, especially in our case with a stress on Satan's restraint. And I don't believe that hyperbole is any more prevalent in apocalyptic literature than it is in didactic.

    I don't see how someone can read the binding of Satan passage and conclude that John intends a partial binding. I appeal to the principle: ""If the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense."

  4. The reason that apocalyptic literature has this polarity is because the genre deals with the final state as well as events leading up to the final state–events which anticipate or participate in the final state.

    In the final state you really do have an absolute separation of good and evil. But historical conflicts between good and evil are also portrayed in uncompromising terms because they reflect a projection of the eschaton into the interadventual age.

    So, for instance, Rev 22:11,14-15 depicts an absolute separation good from evil because this climactic section of Revelation truly marks the consummation. Rev 20:3 is also unqualified, even though that takes place during the church age. And John uses the same dichotomous language because the final separation of good and evil is adumbrated in historical conflicts between good and evil.

  5. Revelation 20 bleeds consummation. So taking your principle of absolute separation, the binding of Satan should be absolute, but here comes the deus ex machina of recapitulation to avoid the inconsistency!

    I think that "tendency" principles should be modified by the specific exegesis of a passage. Indeed, there is a spiral-informing dynamic between larger principles and the specific text. But the specific text should take priority, and if it contradicts a larger "tendency" principle then I think the principle needs to be modified, not the target text. For that is how we construct our larger principles, by the specifics.

    Also, we are begging the question if we first assume that the binding of Satan refers to a historicist schema. Accordingly, we must appeal to some other exegetical principle(s).

    Thanks for the discussion, Steve.

  6. i) I didn’t say Rev 22 recapitulates 20.

    ii) Rev 20 marks the beginning of the end. But it begins in church history, then transitions to the consummation.

    iii) Also relevant to the analysis is the distinction between prophecy and apocalyptic, although that’s a difference of degree rather than kind.

    Although prophecy can include endtime oracles, it also takes an interest in mundane history. This world. God acting within history. Especially the community of faith. The internal dynamics of the covenant community. Promises to the faithful and warnings to the faithless. Room for repentance. Still time to be saved–although the time is short.

    By comparison, apocalyptic tends to bifurcate insiders and outsiders, believers and unbelievers, a persecuted righteous remnant over against an oppressive godless majority or oppressive, ungodly rulers. The perennial conflict between good and evil–only this is coming to a head. The winnowing of the wicked and the righteous is about to happen. Time for final deliverance and final judgment. An other-worldly orientation.

    This lends itself to a hyperbolic style. The antithesis between God’s people and the enemies of God’s people.

    Revelation blends prophetic and apocalyptic genres. And that’s in part because Christians do occupy overlapping stages in redemptive history.

    iv) Likewise, in apocalyptic there’s a sense in which past and future come full circle. God plans out world history, and his plans are now coming to full fruition. The future breaks into the present.

    v) Revelation is also a highly stylized book, one feature of which is the formalized periodization of history.

  7. No matter how you may wish to spin it, someone prowling about like a roaring lion is not bound, shut, and sealed in a bottomless pit.