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One of Flannery O'Connor's short stories is about Walter Tilman, whose mother worried about him because, she thought, "He read books that had nothing to do with anything that mattered now." One day she found such a book in his room, open to a passage from St. Jerome's letter to Heliodorus: "Listen! the battle trumpet blares from heaven and see how our General marches fully armed, coming amid the clouds to conquer the whole world. Out of the mouth of our King emerges a double-edged sword that cuts down everything in the way. Arising finally from your nap, do you come to the battlefield! Abandon the shade and seek the sun."
Walter's mother's reaction was that "this was the kind of thing he read—something that made no sense for now. Then it came to her, with an unpleasant little jolt, that the General with the sword in his mouth, marching to do violence, was Jesus" (O'Connor 1988:800). Truly the "General" in John's vision is an extraordinary figure, not exactly marching as Jerome said, but riding a white horse.
Is this figure Jesus? Yes, but a better way of putting it is that he is "the testimony of Jesus"—and consequently "the spirit of prophecy" (v. 10)—displayed in visible form. His name, after all, is the Word of God (v. 13), a phrase elsewhere linked closely to "the testimony of Jesus" (1:2, 9; 20:4). Moreover, he is Faithful and True (v. 11), attributes as appropriate to a prophecy or a testimony as to a person (compare v. 9, "These are the true words of God"; 21:5; 22:6). Finally, he recalls a figure described in the Wisdom of Solomon in connection with the death of Egypt's firstborn in the time of the Exodus: "For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command, and stood and filled all things with death, and touched heaven while standing on the earth" (Wis 18:14-16 NRSV).
Almost every detail in John's description of the mysterious rider on the white horse matches something that occurred earlier in his visions. The white horse recalls the horse John saw under the first seal (6:1-2), whose rider carried a bow and wore a crown. The two are introduced with exactly the same words (literally, "and behold, a white horse, and he who sat upon it," 6:1; 19:11). If the rider in chapter 6 represented either false prophecy or the spirit of antichrist (see above), it is appropriate that the rider here represents both true prophecy ("the testimony of Jesus") and Jesus Christ himself. Two other features, eyes like blazing fire (v. 12) and the sharp sword coming from the mouth (v. 15), correspond to John's opening vision of the figure who dictated to him the seven messages to the churches. The promise that this warrior will use the sword to strike down the nations so as to rule them with an iron scepter (v. 15) echoes the earlier description of the male child born of the woman and caught up to heaven (12:5; see also 2:26-27).
The grim statement that this figure treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty (v. 15) recalls the outcome of the bloody grape harvest carried out by angels "outside the city" (14:20). His robe is dipped in blood (v. 13), probably not his own, but the blood of his enemies. In this respect John's vision draws on the fearful dialogue of Isaiah 63:1-6:
Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in great splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? . . . Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress? "I have trodden the winepress alone . . . I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing. . . . I trampled the nations in my anger . . . and poured their blood on the ground."
This terrible judge and warrior wears on his head many crowns, or "diadems," (v. 12), a phrase strangely reminiscent of the seven crowns or diadems on the seven heads of the dragon (12:3) or the ten crowns on the ten horns of the beast (13:1). An almost comic touch is that the many crowns here rest on only one head! Probably in all three cases they represent spheres of rule or authority: the ten horns of the beast turned out to be "ten kings" (17:16), and while the dragon's seven heads were assigned no special significance, the corresponding heads of the beast were interpreted as a succession of kings or emperors (17:9-10). Here many crowns on a single head suggest many spheres of sovereignty under a single Lord, anticipating the inscription KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS finally made explicit at the end of the account (v. 16).
This inscription is a traditional formula (see 17:14) that is to be understood quite literally. The rider on the white horse is about to be seen precisely as a King victorious over all other kings, and as supreme Lord, victorious over "generals and mighty men" and their armies (v. 18). Victory in battle (presumably the same battle) was the point of 17:14 as well. There it applied to the Lamb, while here it applies to the rider on the white horse. Both clearly represent Jesus. Yet the Lamb was a silent warrior, as silent in his victory as in his redemptive death (compare Is 53:7). Jesus as the Lamb never speaks a word in the entire book of Revelation, while Jesus as the rider on the white horse is the Word of God (v. 13), the very embodiment of speech itself. John's vision now reveals that the great battle to follow is no literal battle at all (in spite of the bloodstained garments), but a divine decree in action. The Word of God simply speaks with the sword of his mouth, and victory is accomplished. The vaunted battle of Armageddon is no contest.