Revelation 11:5

if anyone wants to harm them
Although set forth as a conditional statement, the remainder of the passage implies that the vast majority of people strongly oppose their ministry and do desire to harm them, for they rejoice at their eventual death (Rev. Rev. 11:10+).1 In the eyes of the earth dwellers who will hate these witnesses, the ability of the beast to kill them is a testimony to his invincibility. He is seen as a “savior” from these detestable prophets and their defeat no doubt elevates his status before the earth dwellers (Rev. Rev. 13:4+).

fire proceeds from their mouth
Those who seek to harm the two witnesses face a similar fate to the opponents of the army of the sixth trumpet (Rev. Rev. 9:18-19+). Fire speaks of judgment and in some cases is used figuratively to describe destruction (Jdg. Jdg. 9:14, Jdg. 9:20; Ps. Ps. 18:8). Frequently, judgment by God, in conformance to His Word, is described as being a weapon of His mouth (Isa. Isa. 11:4; Isa. 49:2; Hos. Hos. 6:5; 2Th. 2Th. 2:8; Rev. Rev. 1:16+; Rev. 19:15+). In the passages just cited, there are normally clues in the context which indicate where figurative language is being employed. For example, in Judges Jdg. 9:1 various men in the dispute are said to be “trees,” “brambles,” and “cedars” (Jdg. Jdg. 9:14-15). In the Second Coming of Jesus, His eyes are like a flame of fire and He is said to be riding a horse through the sky. These textual clues prevent us from interpreting the sword that goes forth from His mouth as a literal sword extending from His face. Rather, we recognize the figurative language employed and understand the sword in His mouth as an allusion to the Word of God (Heb. Heb. 4:12) by which His enemies are judged and so justly killed. This is part of normative interpretation using the Golden Rule of Interpretation. The passage before us is very similar to statements made by other prophets:

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of My mouth; and your judgments are like light that goes forth. (Hos. Hos. 6:5)

Therefore thus says the LORD God of hosts: “Because you speak this word, behold I will make My words in your mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them.” (Jer. Jer. 5:14)

Is not My word like a fire?” says the LORD, “And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. Jer. 23:29)

Hosea likens the words spoken by God through the prophets to a weapon. The prophets spoke forth God’s judgments which eventually resulted in the literal death of those judged. The words of the prophets are likened to a sword (“I have hewn”), but there is no literal sword in the prophets’ mouths. Similarly, Jeremiah’s words are likened to fire and the people wood. It would be easy to conclude from these figurative uses of fire and the mouth as a weapon that such must be the case here too. But there are important differences between the previously cited passages and what is said here. Passages wherein figurative language occurs typically contain an indication of such. For example, Hosea says, “I have hewn them by the prophets.” Obviously, people were not literally cut in two by the prophets. This is an indication that figurative language is employed. Similarly, Jeremiah is told that the people will be made “wood”—another indicator that figurative language is in use. It is not good enough simply to establish that similar themes in related passages are figurative and therefore conclude that this passage must be too. The immediate context of the passage in question must itself provide indication that figurative language is in use. It would seem there are three alternatives for interpreting the passage before us:
  1. Purely Figurative - The fire which proceeds from their mouths speaks of general judgments which are spoken forth by the two witnesses. The judgments result in death, but not necessarily by literal fire.
  2. Partly Figurative - Literal fire devours their enemies. The fire “proceeds from their mouth” in the sense that, like Elijah, they call forth fire from heaven upon their opponents (1K. 1K. 10:10-12).
  3. Purely Nonfigurative - Literal fire actually proceeds directly from their mouths (like the demon horses of Rev. Rev. 9:17+).
Notice that all of these alternatives are possible within the boundaries of “literal interpretation,” because literal interpretation includes the recognition of figures of speech where the context so indicates. The question becomes, “Does the context indicate figurative language is employed?” Although figurative language describes the similarity of their identity to the “two olive trees” of Zechariah, the pattern of their ministry—and especially the judgments they bring forth—match that of non-figurative judgments found in the OT. It would seem that we must conclude that if figurative language is afoot, it is minimal. That is, literal fire comes forth directly out of their mouths or they employ their mouths to call literal fire down from heaven.2 A question remains: if this passage is intended to describe the ability to call down fire from heaven upon their enemies, how do we explain the difference in description here from other passages where fire is explicitly said to be called down from heaven (2K. 2K. 1:10-12; Rev. Rev. 13:13+)? Thus, several factors favor a purely nonfigurative interpretation regarding this judgment by fire of their enemies:
  1. Clear indicators of figurative language concerning the nature of the fire or plagues are lacking.3
  2. Literal judgments such as those described here are recorded as historical facts in the OT.
  3. The fire is not said to originate in heaven as it is in other passages concerning Elijah (2K. 2K. 1:10-12) and the False Prophet (Rev. Rev. 13:13+).
Whether the fire comes directly from their mouths, or whether their words call it forth, it would seem that the unique miraculous authority which attends such a defensive ability is intended to manifest the divine source of their ministry (Num. Num. 10:2; Num. 16:35; Ps. Ps. 106:18; Heb. Heb. 12:29). The unusual nature of their response to their enemies brings to mind the incident in Numbers where Korah’s household is judged:

And Moses said: “By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. If these men die naturally like all men, or if they are visited by the common fate of all men, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the LORD.” Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly. (Num. Num. 16:28-33) [emphasis added]

Moses explains that the unusual nature of the judgment serves a specific purpose. It provides unique testimony to the source of the judgment (God) and the authority of Moses as His spokesman. So will this fire-consuming ability testify that God is the one judging the opponents of His two witnesses and that they have His full authority in their ministry. We should also remember the unique period in which these two individuals minister. This is a time in history during which demonic powers are at a peak (Rev. Rev. 9:1-2+, Rev. 9:13-19+; Rev. 12:12+) and the time of the lawless one, the Antichrist, whose coming “is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish” [emphasis added] (2Th. 2Th. 2:9-10). These are the days of the false prophet who “performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men” (Rev. Rev. 13:13+). These unique historic factors also argue for a completely nonfigurative interpretation because these two witnesses must exhibit miraculous powers which are on a par with, or even superior to, that of the man of sin and his false prophet in an age frequented by demonic manifestations.

Notes

1 “The verb θέλει [thelei] (‘desires’) is present indicative and makes the assumption that some will want to harm the two.”—Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8-22 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), Rev. 11:5.

2 “These men are accorded miraculous power to bring fire down from heaven—they are filled with the Holy Spirit.”—J. Vernon McGee, Thru The Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1981), Rev. 11:5.

3 The only possible exception would be the source of the fire being their mouths. This could be construed as a possible indicator of figurative language. Then again, how else could God indicate literal fire directly originating in their mouths? It seems there will always be room for some uncertainty when interpreting potentially figurative passages which prophesy miraculous events because the boundary between normalcy and miraculous is highly elastic and subject to the purpose of God in any given setting.

Read Revelation 11