What is the meaning of 666, the number of the beast in the book of Revelation?

In response to my last post about secret codes in the Bible, a reader commented that the number 666 in the book of Revelation is also an encrypted word.  That’s quite true. Let me summarize here what I say about this in my Daniel-Revelation study guide.

In many ancient languages, letters were used to represent numbers. (One example of this is the “Roman numerals” we know today: Super Bowl XLVI means Super Bowl 46.) Words and names in such languages had a total value, the sum of the values of their individual letters.  This total value could be used as a kind of  symbolic code in place of the word.  (This practice is known as gematria.) For example, as I discuss in an earlier post, the value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name adds up to 130, and in tribute to him, 130 proverbs were placed in the collection that was created under his patronage.

As I’ve show in another post, apocalypses like Revelation evoke the symbolic significance numbers. 666 suggests having pretensions to divinity or perfection, but falling short of it, since it’s symbolized in the book by the number 7.  But whose name adds up to this total, revealing the hollowness of his pretensions to divinity?

To answer this question, we need to understand the book of Revelation in light of the first-century events that occasioned its writing.  The book was written to warn followers of Jesus, who had experienced persecution under Nero, that persecution would resume under the current emperor, Domitian. So they needed to be faithful unto death in order to win the crown of life. When the book is understood this way, its figure of a “beast” is recognized to be a depiction of Domitian as if he were Nero come back to life.

The number 666 is part of this depiction. John writes that understanding this code “calls for wisdom,” meaning that the puzzle has a trick to it. The secret is, even though John is writing his book in Greek, the numerical values will be those of Hebrew letters. As many scholars have recognized, the consonants of “Neron Caesar” in Hebrew add up to 666. Tagging Domitian with the name (or in this case, the number) of Nero is like drawing a Hitler mustache on a leader’s picture today.  Domitian thinks he’s “lord and God” (as he proclaims on his coins), but he’s really just another evil emperor.

So the meaning of the “number of the beast,” 666, has a unique solution based on the conventions of apocalypses and the facts of history. Its main purpose is to delegitimize Domitian’s claims to divinity and to strengthen followers of Jesus who are being pressured by the emperor cult. But evil rulers in other places and times may also revive the tyrannical spirit of Nero, and they’ll have to be resisted with suffering and endurance. That is the significance of the number 666 for all who live after the time of the book of Revelation.

For some historical evidence that the earliest Christians understood 666 to mean “Nero Caesar,” see this post.

For the significance of the number 144,000, see this post.

Nero 666

Are the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, etc. intentionally symbolic in the book of Revelation?

Q. In your Revelation study guide you say that there’s a symbolic meaning for the numbers in the book.  3 means God, 4 means creation, 7 means perfection, 10 means completeness, and so forth.  Did John really write with all of this in mind?

I believe he definitely did. Throughout the book of Revelation, John is drawing on a stock of recognizable symbols from the First Testament.  This stock includes some commonly-used numerical symbols that would have been meaningful to John’s readers.

For example, in the First Testament, 10 represents completeness in the human dimension, since people usually have ten figures and ten toes.  That’s why God gave an epitome of the law in the Ten Commandments.  The number is also used in this sense when Job says to his friends, “Ten times now you have reproached me.”  This is not a literal count, because the friends have only spoken five times to that point in the book.  But the number means “You’ve reproached me as many times as a human can bear.”   Ten meaning what is complete or ultimate in human experience is also seen in Daniel’s vision of the four beasts.  The last one, representing a supreme empire, has ten horns.  The image and the number with its significance are echoed in John’s description of the dragon in Revelation.

To give another example, since there were twelve tribes of Israel, the number 12 represents the covenant community in the First Testament.  In the New Testament, Jesus himself appealed to this symbol when he chose 12 apostles.  Through this number he was declaring that a new kind of covenant community was coming into existence through his life and ministry.  In Revelation the number 12 is used throughout the book to represent the community.  See how many times it’s used in the depiction of the New Jerusalem, for example. (See the Daniel-Revelation study guide, p. 131.)

Twelve can also be used in multiples and in combination with other numbers. There are 24 elders in the heavenly throne vision to depict the continuity of the first and new covenant communities.  The number 144,000, for its part, comes from 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10, representing the fullness of the community of believers throughout time and space from the first and new covenants.

Examples like these show us what an intentional part numbers play in the book of Revelation’s symbolism, echoing the First Testament background.  As for some of the other numbers in the book, as I write in my Daniel-Revelation study guide:

•  3 represents God, who’s often described in three-part phrases (“who was, and is, and is to come”) and ascribed triple attributes (“holy, holy, holy”; “glory and honor and power.”)

•  4 is the number of creation.  It’s represented in the heavenly throne vision by four living creatures, and it’s also described as having four parts: heaven, earth, under-earth, and sea.  The song of every creature ascribes four attributes to the Lamb: praise, honor, glory and power.  There are other uses of the number 4 to symbolize creation later in the book, for example, in the following vision, “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds”.

•  The number 7 (4+3) represents perfection and completeness.  The Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes; these symbolize his absolute power and knowledge.  The scroll has seven seals because it contains the definitive judgments of God.  The seven churches at the beginning of the book are symbolized by seven lamp stands and seven stars.  While these are actual churches, they’re also representative of the church as a whole; what’s written to them is also addressed to the wider community of Jesus’ followers.  The throne vision depicts the “seven spirits of God.” As a translation note in the NIV explains, this is the “seven-fold” Spirit of God–the perfect (divine) Holy Spirit.  The angels, in their song, ascribe seven attributes to the Lamb, acknowledging his divine perfections.

We see in all of these ways, as I write in my study guide, that “in addition to visual symbols drawn from earlier Scriptures, the book of Revelation also uses numerical symbols.  Certain numbers in the book are like ‘logos’ that point to key characters and themes.”

For the symbolic meaning of the number 666, see this post.