The Poetic Biblical Link Between “Sea” and “Abyss”

For an explanation of how earth often represents a specific kingdom addressed in a Bible passage while sea represents the nations foreign to it see the following link: In the Bible “Earth” Signifies the Specific Land Addressed While “Sea” Symbolizes Foreign Nations. Though not stated in the above article, there is an added layer of depth to this aquatic imagery in the Bible.  Throughout the Bible words like flood, waters, sea and Abyss often appear to symbolize two complimentary things.  These words generally represent foreign kingdoms and yet at the same time also point to the Abyss, the underworld of the dead, simultaneously.

In the Book of Revelation, the Abyss is not just the land of the dead (Luke 8:31; Romans 10:7; Revelation 9:11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3).  Abyss also has added symbolic significance representing foreign nations as does words like sea, waters or flood (Revelation 17:15; Daniel 7; 9:26; 11:10, 40; Psalm 65:7; 144:7; Isaiah 8:7-8; 17:12; 60:5; Jeremiah 46:7-8; 47:1-2; 51:55-56; Ezekiel 26:3; Joel 2:9; Nahum 1:8). Thus when the beast is said to come up out of the sea in Revelation 13:1 and come out of the Abyss in Revelation 11:7 and 17:8 these expressions signify the same things.  Both of these expressions are resurrection imagery pointing to the fact that the beast rises from the Abyss, the underworld of the dead.  This aquatic imagery also conveys a symbolic message concerning the arrival of the beast embodied by Caesar Titus and the Roman Army to Israel from the sea, waters or Abyss which is Gentile Rome.  See the preterist commentaries on Revelation 11 and Revelation 17.

This sea/Abyss symbolism presents two complimentary messages.  First, it presents the destruction and conquest of Israel, the earth, by Rome, the sea or Abyss, as a return to the precreation state of the earth in Genesis 1:1-3.  Here Israel, the earth, is metaphorically pictured returning to the formless abyss or water world of Genesis 1:1-3 after its conquest and destruction by Rome, the sea.  This return of the earth to its preformed state sets the stage for its recreation as the new earth of Revelation 21:1.  Second, the fact that the Romans, the sea, are signified by the Abyss, the realm of the dead, is also appropriate in light of the fact that during the subjugation of Israel by Rome during the Jewish War this powerful army left so much death in its wake.  Isaiah 28:14-18 and Jeremiah 51:25, 42 are prominent examples of this symbolism.

In Isaiah 28:14-18 the leaders of Judah are said to have made a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with Sheol.”  Like the Abyss, Sheol is another name for the realm of the dead.  This “covenant with death” and “agreement with Sheol” poetically refers to the treaty Ahaz, king of Judah, made with Assyria to destroy the king of Israel, Pekah, and the king of Syria, Rezin.1  Thus in Isaiah 28:14-18 Assyria is called “Sheol” and “death.”

Similar imagery is found in Jeremiah 51:25, 42.  In these vs., mountain represents a city or kingdom as it does so often in the Bible since cities were often built upon mountains for military defense.  It is also clear in these vs. that sea represents foreign conquerors and the Abyss simultaneously:

“I am against you, you destroying mountain [Babylon], you who destroy the whole earth,” declares the Lord.  “I will stretch out my hand against you, roll you off the cliffs, and make you a burned-out mountain. . . .  The sea will rise over Babylon; its roaring waves will cover her.”

Jeremiah 51:25, 42 was fulfilled in 539 B.C. at the fall of Babylon.  When the city of Babylon fell at that time it was not because of a literal flood.  Rather, Jeremiah 51:25, 42 was fulfilled when Babylon, the destroying mountain, was conquered by the Medes and Persians represented in v. 42 by the rising sea.  Here foreign conquest and the resulting death toll are presented as the sea or Abyss swallowing Babylon in a flood.

This double meaning underlying these aquatic terms is also found elsewhere in the Bible such as Psalm 69:14-15: “Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink; deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters.  Do not let the floodwaters engulf me or the depths swallow me up or the pit close its mouth over me.”  Notice that “those who hate” the Psalmist appear to be equated with “deep waters” and the depths of the waters appear to be equated with the Sheol, the pit.  In Psalm 69:14-15, as is the case in much of Revelation, the sea or waters represent both foreigners or foreign nations and the Abyss, the realm of the dead.  Psalm 69:14-15 intentionally sends two related messages.  Here the Psalmist wishes to be rescued from foreign adversaries.  This desire to be rescued from hostile foreign enemies is also a poetic plea to be rescued from death and may even be a prophecy concerning the resurrection of the dead.  The Psalmist’s plea for help echoes the plea of the departed to be rescued from the waters of the Abyss, the dark under world of the dead, during the time of the resurrection.  Psalm 144:7 appears to convey a similar message to Psalm 69:14-15 cited above.

The idea of foreign nations denoting death is also found in Ezekiel 37:1-14.  Here Ezekiel sees a vision of dried bones. Ezekiel is told that these bones represent the people of Israel who had been exiled to Babylon. Ezekiel is then told to speak the bones saying, “My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.” (Ezekiel 37:12.) Here we see that the resurrection of the Jews (i.e. their being brought back to life) is signified by their return to the land of Israel.  The implication here is that if the return to the earth, Israel, is a return to life, the exile to foreign lands, the sea or Abyss, is, therefore, death.

Similar meaning is found in Genesis 2-3.  In Genesis 2:16-17 God tells Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “for on the day that you eat from it you will certainly die.”  Then in Genesis 3:5 Eve is told that the day she eats from the fruit her eyes would be opened and she would know good from evil.  Then in Genesis 3:7 Adam and Eve ate of the fruit and that moment their “eyes were opened” just as they were told.  And yet although their eyes had been opened that day as promised, Adam and Eve did not die physically on that same day.  Instead, Adam and Eve were expelled from the land of God that day.  This exile from the land of God to foreign lands outside Eden (i.e. the sea or Abyss) appears to be the death promised by God that Adam and Eve would experience on the day they sinned.  In Genesis 2-3 as is the case in Ezekiel 37:1-14 we see that exile to foreign lands, (i.e. the sea or Abyss) is also death.

In Revelation 9:1-4, 11 we see Apollyon rise from the Abyss.  Apollyon is a word-play on “Apollo” and “Destroyer.”  Apollyon is Caesar Titus, the general of Legio XV Apollinaris (the 15th Apollonian Legion), who destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  Apollyon is said to rise out of the Abyss with his locust army (Revelation 9:1-11) because prior to the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 Titus and much of his army left Palestine and were staying in Egypt before receiving orders to return to Jerusalem in A.D. 70 to besiege the city.2 Egypt is called the “iron-smelting furnace” in 1 Kings 8:51.  The fact that Egypt is an “iron-smelting furnace” matches Revelation 9’s description of the Abyss which is also likened to a “furnace” in Revelation 9:2: “When he opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace.” In Revelation 9 we see Abyss again signifying foreign lands, specifically Egypt in this case.   Furthermore, with the fire, smoke and sulfur imagery we see the Abyss also denoting the realm of the wicked dead.  This conjoined meaning is again highly suggestive in Revelation 9 (see the commentary on Revelation 9).  Like Adam and the Jewish exiles in Ezekiel 37:1-14, Titus was not physically dead when he was in the Abyss. Nor was Titus physically dead when he returned to the Abyss as the false prophet in Revelation 19:20. What we have in Revelation 9, like Titus’ return to the Abyss as the false prophet in Revelation 19:20, is another example of Biblical symbolic death by way of being present in foreign lands.

The fact that there is a symbolic link between the sea representing foreign nations and the Abyss, the realm of the dead, is also found in Jewish tradition.  Midrash Psalm 116:3 interprets “the power of the netherworld [Sheol, Hades]” from Hosea 13:14 as “the kingdoms” of the world.3  Thus, as mentioned often throughout this commentary, the fact that the Book of Revelation uses waters, sea and Abyss as symbols of both foreign nations and the spiritual underworld simultaneously is not unique to Revelation alone.

  1. Jim McGuiggan, The Book of Revelation, (Lubbock, TX: International Biblical Resources, Inc., 1976), 322.
  2. Josephus The Wars of the Jews 4.11.5.
  3. G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 387.