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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Imprisonment of the Dragon, or Satan (20:1-3)
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The Imprisonment of the Dragon, or Satan (20:1-3)

The thousand-year interval is used in two connections in this passage: the imprisonment of Satan in the Abyss and his subsequent release (vv. 1-3, 7-10) and the reign of God's martyrs and saints (vv. 4-6). Although the view of J. A. Bengel (1877:5:368-69) that the text pointed to two distinct thousand-year periods, one after the other, cannot be sustained, we are dealing here with two distinct (though closely related) visions. If verses 4-6 were left out, a reader could move directly from verses 1-3 to verses 7-10 with scarcely a clue that anything was missing.

John gives Satan a very formal introduction as the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan (v. 2), almost exactly as in 12:9. The additional phrase in 12:9, "who leads the whole earth astray," is echoed here in the statement that Satan was imprisoned to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore (v. 3). This is part of a pattern of correspondence and contrast between this passage and 12:7-12. There the dragon was thrown down from heaven to earth (12:9, 12); here he is thrown from earth into the Abyss. There it was for only a short time (12:12); here it is for a thousand years. There his downfall meant deception and woe for the earth (12:12); here it means freedom from deception, and therefore peace and rest for the earth. Chapters 12 and 20 neatly frame the dragon's career. Chapter 12 marks the beginning of his activity on earth, chapter 20 its end.

Two things are important in this connection. First, the language of verses 1-3 presupposes all that has transpired in chapters 12-19. The dragon is imprisoned so as not to deceive the nations anymore (Greek eti, v. 3). Second, there is an explicit recognition that the thousand-year imprisonment of the dragon is not quite the last word. Verse 3 (that is, after this he must be set free for a short time) anticipates verses 7-10 with their renewed outburst of activity and the dragon's final judgment in the lake of fire. This is a hint that the dragon is going to disappear from the scene in two stages rather than one.

The vision of the millennium begins when John sees an unidentified angel coming down out of heaven, like others he has seen before (10:1; 18:8). The angel, like the fallen star of 9:1, holds the key to the Abyss, not to release powers of evil (as in 9:1-11), but to seal up the terrible place with the source of all evil bound within (vv. 1-3). This first stage of the dragon's disappearance marks a time of temporary relief for the troubled earth. The battle is over. The beast and the false prophet are gone (19:20). But otherwise we are told nothing about this worldwide utopia. John knows only that God is in control. Later, in connection with the second stage, we will learn that "the camp of God's people" and a "the city he loves" are on earth during the thousand years (v. 9), but for now all we know is that Satan and his cohorts are gone and the nations are no longer being deceived.

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