(1) Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there,
John is given a measuring stick and is told to measure three things: the temple of God, the altar, and those who worship there. What is the purpose of taking such measurements? Measuring the temple (or a city or people) is a major Old Testament figure that is used in two very opposite ways. Often, we may think of this picture as a reflection of Ezekiel’s vision of measuring the temple. Ezekiel followed a man with a measuring stick and recorded the details and measurements of the temple of God, as well as the people and the city (Ezekiel 40-48). We may also point out that Zechariah also saw a vision of a man measuring the city of Jerusalem (Zechariah 2:1-5). Both of those scriptures deal with the measuring of a restored city of God under Christ. The other way that this figure is used is in respect to measuring a place and a people for destruction. Habakkuk gives us a beautiful example of this:
God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels. He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways.” (Habakkuk 3:3-6).
Habakkuk’s use of the idea of measuring the earth for judgment and desolation is a strong demonstration that we must think twice about Revelation eleven. Is the chapter about a restored temple or a defied temple ready for the abomination of desolation? Amos also uses this manner of speaking, describing God with a plumb line; and finding Israel’s structure to be greatly lacking, he declares it fit for desolation (Amos 7:7-9). This measuring concept is also used of David measuring the Moabites for defeat (2 Samuel 8:2). Jeremiah is another who wrote with this imagery; speaking of the fall of old Jerusalem, he said:
“The LORD determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion; he stretched out the measuring line; he did not restrain his hand from destroying; he caused rampart and wall to lament; they languished together.” (Lamentations 2:8).
There are a number of other fantastic scriptures that incorporate this figure (2 Kings 21:13; Isaiah 28:17; 34:11), all of which refer to God determining a place for destruction. To carry these ideas over to Revelation chapter eleven will provide a very natural reading of the chapter and its context. Others have argued for a different interpretation based on the use of the figure in Ezekiel and Zechariah, supposing that that’s the only way that God uses this symbolism. This is erroneous, for God uses the measuring line in much more scripture about destruction than restoration; and restoration does not fit this specific vision. There is, however, Revelation twenty-one! Now that’s a text about restoration! In that latter vision, John said, “And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls.” (21:15). There we find the natural interpretation which corresponds to the visions of Ezekiel 40-48 and Zechariah 2. When we get to that point, I will happily comment on Ezekiel and Zechariah; but while we are in chapter eleven, we will be dealing with different symbolism in the measuring rod.
“Measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there.” The house, the people, and their worship were to be measured by John. We are not given any details of John’s findings, for it is evident that the people did not “measure up” to the standard of God’s covenant; they were guilty.
(2) but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.
The figure in this verse is illustrative of the words of Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem in that generation: “and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:24). The use of the “court outside” is a figure of the gentiles (who were allowed in the outer court of the temple in the first century). Therefore, the temple is symbolic of the Jews and their worship; this is what is being measured (judged). The outer court is symbolic of the gentiles, are not to be measured (this isn’t God’ judgment against them… yet); but they are introduced here to show their purpose in God’s plan to use gentiles to trample the holy city. This is the destruction of Jerusalem!
“The holy city” could refer to one of two places, either physical Jerusalem or the heavenly Jerusalem, but the context forces the conclusion that the holy city referred to here is the physical city. The heavenly Jerusalem will be introduced later, in chapter twenty-one, and is referenced at the end of this chapter (11:19) as being opened in heaven. Most importantly, this text is a parallel to Luke 21:24; making this city (which was trampled by the gentiles) the physical city of Jerusalem in the first century. Some have argued that this cannot be a vision of physical Jerusalem, but of the church, because the city is called “holy.” This sounds like a good point at first, but it does not follow the bible. Daniel, speaking of the same fall of Jerusalem, and the same forty-two months, also spoke of it as the “holy city” (Daniel 9:24). He even called the wicked Jews the “holy people” (Daniel 12:7). The word “holy” is certainly not used of their actions, but of their identity as God’s chosen and purchased (from Egypt) people. Their identity was in their belonging to God; such an identity which they wholeheartedly rejected. Therefore, judgment was to come upon them.
“For forty-two months.” This is a common number for symbolism in the books of Daniel and Revelation (Daniel 7:25, 12:7, 12:11; Revelation 11:3, 11:11, 12:6, 13:5). While the meaning remains the same, this symbol changes its appearance; it may look like “times, times, and half a time,” or “three and a half,” or “forty-two months,” or “1,260 days,” but it all amounts to 3.5 years. We have no justification to make this into a literal 3.5 years, though many have been presumptuous to do so. When God places a number on something it is confirmation that he has counted it; he knows all about it and controls the situation (this may be the most important thing to consider about numerical figures). This figure is exactly half of seven, and it also falls just short of four; these are two numbers which God likes to use to communicate the fullness or completeness of something. So, the forty-two months (and its other likenesses) represent something that is not the whole story. It may appear to be the whole story from an earthly vantage point; but from the view of God’s throne, it is not the complete story. The best way to come to an understanding of these numbers is to look at the contexts where these numbers are used.
- Daniel 7:25. The number relates to a persecution.
- Daniel 12:7, 11. The number relates to the shattering of the Jewish people in the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.).
- Revelation 11:2. The number relates to the trampling of Jerusalem by the Romans.
- Revelation 11:3. The number relates to the times of suffering in the last days of God’s covenant with the house of Israel.
- Revelation 11:11. The number relates to death.
- Revelation 12:6, 14. The number relates to escaping persecution.
- Revelation 13:5. The number relates to persecution.
Examining each context is very helpful to see the identity of these numbers. The numbers are identifiable as a label for difficult and dark times.