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Who's Afraid of 666?

One summer, about the age of twelve, I was stung twice in the same week by yellow jacket wasps. For quite a while after that, I tried to give those insects a wide berth. Though I did not know it at the time, I was experiencing a specific fear known as "spheksophobia."


Names have been attached to many sources of fear, even exotic ones like the fear of particular numbers. For instance, fear of the number 13 is triskaidekaphobia, and fear of the number 666 is called hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.


Mathematically speaking, 666 is a fascinating number. It is the sum of the numbers 1, 2, 3, etc., up to 36, while 36 is the sum of the numbers one through eight. In Roman numerals, DCLXVI represents 666. Each symbol appears only once. These things might be interesting, but they certainly don't frighten anyone.


What makes 666 scary is its appearance in the last book of the Bible (in chapter 13, no less) as the number of the beast.

John, the author of Revelation, wrote to Christians in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the late first century. Asia Minor was part of the mighty Roman Empire, which kept the peace and provided many benefits to its subjects while imposing certain conditions. Among those requirements was mandatory participation in the worship of the emperor.


For early Christians, whose first loyalty was to the God of Israel and his Son, Jesus the Messiah, emperor worship was unacceptable. But by refusing to participate, they faced public disapproval, exclusion from mainstream social and economic circles, and sometimes even death.(1)


In Revelation 13, John described a vision in which Rome's political and religious authority appeared as two beasts who wielded great power and demanded universal submission. The vision identifies the followers of the Roman regime as marked with the name of the beast or the number of its name. This number was 666, the number of a man (verse 18).

 

Throughout Christian history, much ink has been spilled over speculation about the meaning of 666 in Revelation 13:18.

One popular approach has been numerological, associating a number with each letter in the Greek, Hebrew, or Latin alphabet and looking for names with letters adding up to 666. The Church father Irenaeus, writing in the late second century AD, observed that many words had totals of 666 in Greek, including "Lateinos," a word for "Romans" (Against Heresies 5.30).


In another famous example, first pointed out in the nineteenth century, when the name "Nero Caesar" is written in Hebrew, one spelling gives a total of 666. Alternatively, there is a variant spelling that gives 616, which appears in some manuscripts instead of 666 in Revelation 13:18.


The meaning of 666 has also been explained with biblical connections.

Irenaeus described 666 as a "summing up of the whole of that apostasy which has taken place during six thousand years." He noted that Noah was 600 years old at the time of the Flood when evil in the world had reached a dangerous level. Then, in the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar's idolatrous golden image was sixty cubits high and six cubits wide (Da 3:1). These figures add up to 666 (Against Heresies 5.28-29).

 

Another significant biblical appearance of the number is in 1 Kings 10:14, where 666 is given as the weight in talents of the gold collected by King Solomon each year. A talent has been estimated to be about seventy-five pounds, which would make 666 talents almost twenty-five tons of gold!


It is important to note that the life and reign of Solomon included both positive and negative characteristics. On the one hand, he presided over a golden age in the history of Israel, a type of the messianic era (1 Ki 4:24-25). He supervised the building of a magnificent Temple (1 Ki 5-7). His knowledge and wisdom were renowned, attracting the attention and admiration of surrounding nations (1 Ki 4:29-34; 10:1-10).


On the other hand, Solomon amassed his great wealth through heavy taxation (1 Ki 4:7-19) and forced labor (1 Ki 5:13). (The Hebrew word for forced labor in 1 Kings 5:13 is the same one used for Pharaoh's taskmasters in Exodus 1:11.) By accumulating wives, wealth, and horses, he expressly violated God's instructions for Israelite kings (1 Ki 10:14-11:8; Dt 17:16-17). Influenced by his foreign wives, he even sponsored the worship of false gods (1 Ki 11:4-8).


Sadly, then, Solomon, at his worst, was uncomfortably similar to the Roman emperors who came a thousand years after him. The number 666 from 1 Kings 10:14 is thus a fitting symbol for the beasts of Revelation 13.(2)


All of these interpretations of 666 point toward oppressive human empires and their rulers.

Generally speaking, numbers play a symbolic role in the Book of Revelation. For instance, 7 is featured as a symbol of completion or perfection. The number 6, which is just less than 7, hints at the idea that human beings, created on the sixth day, fall short of perfection on their own. The number 666 implies that Rome, as impressive and powerful as it seemed to be, was a mere human empire that wielded authority only because God allowed it.


John wrote Revelation to encourage Christians not to be frightened by the Roman beast and its number. If they would remain faithful to the one true God, he said, they would be rewarded with eternal life on a renewed earth. He transmitted the following message from God in Revelation 2:7: To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.


Taken together, there are two lessons to be practiced in regard to John's apocalyptic use of 666. First, in relation to manmade kingdoms, there is an ongoing need for discernment and wisdom that God promises to give to those who ask (James 1:5). Second, in Jesus' Kingdom, there is no need to fear the beast because our faith is in our Father's love, power, and faithfulness.


(1) For more on the pressures faced by these Christians, I recommend David deSilva's historical novel, A Week in the Life of Ephesus, IVP Academic, 2020.

(2) See Keith Bodner and Brent A. Strawn, "Solomon and 666 (Revelation 13.18)," New Testament Studies 66 (2020), pp. 299-312.


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