(1) And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.
The angel’s descent from heaven reveals that this action is by the authority of God. There are two things in his hand, the key of the bottomless pit, and a great chain. The last time that we saw an angel with the key to the bottomless pit, he was unlocking havoc and distress upon the house of Israel (9:1-2). Is this the same bottomless pit? Not exactly, but neither are a literal place. The bottomless pit is a figure for utter darkness and bottomless doom. In 9:2, it was specifically a land abyss (see comments there), but no distinction is given in this verse. The specification of the land abyss in 9:2 was for a reason associated with the land of Israel, here it is not needed, for this vision has nothing to do with the old covenant people. In this context, the bottomless pit is simply a figure for bottomless defeat, and the great chain intensifies the symbolism; for if it wasn’t enough to be cast into a bottomless abyss of defeat, how about also being chained to this bottomless defeat?
(2) And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
The Devil is now bound up in bottomless defeat! With the work of Christ on the cross, his resurrection, and ascension to rule over all, Satan does not have a chance, not then, not now, not ever. Will he still try, yes, that will be made evident by verse seven; but the fact is that Christ is the victor already, so Satan is the defeated failure already. This is why the New Testament text can speak with absolute certainty about the victory of those faithful to Christ (1 John 5:4-5; 1 Corinthians 10:13).
“A thousand years.” The context is consistently symbolic and we are not permitted to understand this figure as a literal period. We cannot accept the “thousand” as literal, nor can we accept the “years” as literal, but together they are a sign, and signs convey truth. The truth behind the picture is adding intensity to the figure of the bottomless pit; the Devil’s bottomless defeat is absolute, i.e. “a thousand years.” Many have tried to give a partially literal interpretation of this figure, saying that the thousand years is symbolic of a very long period of time. This is problematic, for the book continues and speaks of more things that will occur after the thousand years are finished but remains in its original context and reminds us that these things “must soon take place” (22:6). How could we interpret in one breath that the thousand years means a very long time, and in the next say that this book is about things that would take place shortly for the first century brethren? This is one of the many struggles that I had for a while when I held to the late date interpretation of the book. The fact is that a thousand years is not symbolic of a long period of time, for it literally is a long period of time; there is nothing symbolic about that interpretation. To remain consistent with the original context, we must affirm that the “years” is a sign too, and is therefore not in reference to time. In the book, we have seen “forty-two months” (11:2), “one thousand two hundred and sixty days” (11:3), “time, and times, and half a time” (12:14), and “five months” (9:5), but we also saw from the context that not one of those figures had anything to do with a length of time; therefore numbers are not symbolic of time, but of ideas and truths. The truth to be understood in this verse is that the Devil has been totally, completely, and perfectly defeated, as this multiple of ten suggests. But why is it given in terms of “years” if it has nothing to do with a length of time? Because it is a picture book, a story, one that is fictional that is teaching the church about non-fictional realities. The “years” detail helps to complete the picture in the text. Brethren who want to make the “thousand” into something figurative and the “years” into literal years have created inconsistencies which they will not be able to satisfy in between the bulwarks that stand on opposite ends of the book (1:1 and 22:6), saying that these “things must soon take place.” However, if we respect the context of the book, we must admit that the “years” do not relate to a length of time, but only an idea of the extremity with which the defeat of Satan has been accomplished. For more discussion on the thousand years, see comments on verse four.
It is significant that this is the first time that we’ve seen the symbol of “years” in the book. Before this we have seen conflicts arising under the symbol of “days” or “months,” but not to the extreme of the symbol “years.” Even though “forty-two months” (11:2) is technically over three years, as is “one thousand two hundred and sixty days” (11:3), and even the “time, and times, and half a time” (12:14), but these are strategically and symbolically not referred to in terms of “years” but “months,” “days,” and even “times.” Because while those figures focused on the incompleteness their assigned situation, the “thousand” in chapter twenty – which is already a symbol of completeness – receives the addition idea of “years” to complete the picture. It is as if to say, the saints may have been persecuted incompletely by Satan, but Satan was completely defeated by Christ.
(3) And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
Satan’s loss is established here in the threefold description of being cast in, shut up, and sealed up in his bottomless defeat.
“That he should deceive the nations no more.” Satan had raised up the beast in chapter thirteen and deceived it so that it would turn against the church. There is the truth of Christ, which the true church follows, or there is the deception of Satan, which the world follows. Satan had successfully deceived the empire to fulfill his own wicked purposes against the church, and the fall of Jerusalem was expected to cause the fall of the church too (see comments on 17:14), but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth! In John 8:44, Jesus explained how the Devil “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” So, the Devil has no concept of truth, how the church stands, and what the plan of God is. This is how he did all that he could to get Jesus on the cross, not having any concept of what God had promised for so long through his holy prophets. God can openly speak truth all day long, but the Devil will have no understanding of it.
The Devil’s defeat is bottomless, that is, whatever he tries to do will not work. He deceived the nations to destroy Jerusalem in order to destroy the church; but God used his plan to fulfill the covenant demand of the old law against the house of Israel and to deliver his true people from their oppressors. Now he is defeated in this circumstance – as he is in all circumstances, and he is without a grip, without a plan, and without a deception.
“After that he must be loosed a little season.” This is a part of the picture and does not relate to a literal time period. The message of the symbol is telling the first century church that they have not seen the last of Satan, so they must be sober-minded and continue to be watchful of the snares of Satan. This is not meant to be a discouraging message, for the rest of the chapter will reveal that Satan will try and try again but will always see defeat, because Christ has already won, once and for all. Remain faithful unto death and you will receive a crown of life.