Horns, both literal and figurative, appear throughout the Bible. How and why does God use this symbol of power, especially in end-time prophecy?
You can be reading along in the Bible and, all of a sudden, horns will pop up! We don’t talk about horns nearly as much in our urbanized modern world.
The New King James Version of the Bible uses the words horn and horns 112 times. Many of these refer to literal animal horns and products made from animal horns. Horns is also used to describe things that look like horns, such as the horns of the altar (mentioned 26 times) and imitation horns of iron.
Bible prophecy also uses horns as a symbol. Thankfully, the Bible identifies the meanings of its symbols. For example, after seeing a disturbing vision of a frightening beast with 10 horns, Daniel was told the meaning, including the fact, “The ten horns are ten kings” (Daniel 7:24).
In this article we will look at the powerful meaning and symbolism of horns throughout the Bible, and especially in the end-time prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.
What is a horn?
An animal’s horns give it protection and represent its strength. Horns were a recognized danger in Israel’s agrarian culture. An ox that gored a person would be destroyed, and if the owner knew the “ox tended to thrust with its horn” and didn’t keep it confined, he would be punished (Exodus 21:28-30).
Horns could also be used as containers and are often mentioned as the place olive oil was carried for ceremonial uses like anointing a new king (1 Samuel 16:1).
And the horns of rams were used as trumpets (Joshua 6:5), known as shofars.
Blowing through a ram’s horn produces a distinctive sound heard in ancient Israel and modern Judaism on the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24), Rosh Hashanah. Shofars were also blown for other religious ceremonies, for an alarm of war (Jeremiah 4:19) and for other important events.
For example, when Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land, shofars played a role in the battle of Jericho. Seven priests went before the Ark of the Covenant blowing trumpets of ram’s horns as the Israelite army marched around the city once a day for six days.
On the seventh day, they marched around the city seven times. The seventh time, when the priests blew a long blast with the ram’s horn, “the people shouted with a great shout” and the wall of the city fell down flat, just as God had promised (Joshua 6:4-5, 20).
Not all trumpets were made of horns. The Bible also talks of a different kind of trumpet made of silver and used for calling assemblies (Numbers 10:2) as well as for producing music (1 Chronicles 13:8).
Horns of the altar
God told Moses to build the altar for sacrifices with four hornlike projections on the four corners (Exodus 27:2; 29:12; Revelation 9:13).
According to the NKJV Study Bible note on Exodus 27:2, “They could have been used to secure the sacrificial animal to the altar. They were also sprinkled with the blood from the sacrifices.”
For example, God commanded Moses, “You shall take some of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger” (Exodus 29:12).
All of the sacrifices foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice for the ultimate salvation of the world. As Hebrews 9:13-14 explains, “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Read more about this in our article “Types of Sacrifice in the Bible and What They Mean for Us.”
At the time of Solomon it seems taking hold of the horns of the altar was seen as a way to seek mercy and protection, as both Adonijah and Joab did this (1 Kings 1:50; 2:28). But in spite of their taking hold of the horns of the altar, these men’s evil deeds sooner (Joab) or later (Adonijah) caught up with them, and they were executed.
Horns in prophecy
Horns played a prominent role as a symbol in prophecy, especially in the visions recorded in Daniel and Revelation.Horns played a prominent role as a symbol in prophecy, especially in the visions recorded in Daniel and Revelation.
The notable horn
Some of the horns can be identified today as fulfilled prophecy. The book of Daniel predicted a succession of great empires that would continue all the way to the time of the end.
During the time of the neo-Babylonian Empire, Daniel foresaw the rise of the next two empires. The Medo-Persian Empire appeared in his vision as a ram with two high horns, Media and Persia (Daniel 8:3-4, 20). This ram was eventually defeated by a male goat from the west with “a notable horn between his eyes” (verse 5), representing the “kingdom of Greece” (verse 21). Bible scholars recognize that this horn represented Alexander the Great and his Greco-Macedonian Empire.
In Daniel’s vision, “the male goat grew very great; but when he became strong, the large horn was broken, and in place of it four notable ones came up toward the four winds of heaven” (verse 8).
On Alexander’s death at age 32, his four generals divided up the empire, and “the ‘four horns’ are the kingdoms into which his empire was divided” (Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 435).
Read more about the prophecies in Daniel 8 in our article “Daniel 8: The Vision of a Ram and a Goat.”
The symbol of a beast with 10 horns appears several times in Bible prophecy, with at least two distinct meanings.
10 horns in Daniel 7
Daniel saw a vision of four wild beasts that represented four great empires.
- The lion was the neo-Babylonian Empire.
- The bear was the Medo-Persian Empire.
- The leopard with four heads was the Greco-Macedonian Empire with its four offshoots.
- The “fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong … had ten horns” and represented the Roman Empire and its revivals through history (Daniel 7:7).
A little horn
The little horn in Daniel 7 arises from the fourth beast.
Daniel wrote that while he was considering the fourth beast’s 10 horns, “there was another horn, a little one, coming up among them, before whom three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots” (Daniel 7:8).
This little horn represents a religious system that would be associated with the last seven revivals of the Roman Empire. This combination of church and state became known as the Holy Roman Empire.
Study more about this in our article “Daniel 7: Four Beasts and a Little Horn.”
10 horns in Revelation 12
In the book of Revelation, the apostle John saw three visions that included 10 horns.
The first depicted a dragon, which John identified as “the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9). This dragon with seven heads and 10 horns is shown trying to devour the Child “who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (verses 3-5). This is a description of Satan trying to kill the Messiah, who was “caught up to God and His throne” (verse 5).
Study more about this in our article “Who Are the Woman, Child and Dragon in Revelation 12?”
Satan’s “seven heads and ten horns” foreshadow two more visions of beasts under the control of Satan.
10 horns in Revelation 13
In Revelation 13:1-2 John saw “a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name. Now the beast which I saw was like a leopard, his feet were like the feet of a bear, and his mouth was like the mouth of a lion. The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority.”
This beast incorporates elements of the four beasts of Daniel 7, but again the 10 horns represent the 10 revivals of the Roman Empire through history.
Study more about this in our article “Who Is the Beast?”
10 horns in Revelation 17
In his vision in Revelation 17 John described a scarlet beast, ridden by a “woman arrayed in purple and scarlet.” There are some similarities to the beast of Revelation 13, such as having seven heads and 10 horns, but both the description and the explanation show a different prophetic meaning of the 10 horns.
“And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns” (Revelation 17:3).
The scarlet woman represents a religious power directing the beast, the political power. This is similar to what we saw in Daniel 7, where the little horn (a religious power) worked with the last seven horns (the revivals known as the Holy Roman Empire).
So these last seven horns of Daniel 7 equate to the seven heads of the beast in Revelation 17, which “are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must continue a short time” (Revelation 17:9-10).
So what about the 10 horns of Revelation 17? Verses 12-13 explain: “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast.”
These 10 “kings”—leaders of nations or groups of nations—will all exist at the same time, the end time. In fact, they “will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings” (verse 14).These 10 “kings”—leaders of nations or groups of nations—will all exist at the same time, the end time. In fact, they “will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings” (verse 14).
This last revival of the Roman Empire will be a combination of 10 leaders in Europe who will come together to form a short-lived resurgence of this fourth empire of Daniel 7.
Study more about this in our article “Revelation 17: Who Is the Scarlet Woman?”
Thankfully, all the evil horns, the human governments doing the bidding of the evil dragon, will be defeated at Jesus Christ’s return (Revelation 19:19-21), and a government of justice and peace will be set up.
Horn of salvation
Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, was inspired to prophesy about the physical and spiritual deliverance that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of David and Son of God, would bring. Again we see the symbolism of a horn—in this case representing the victorious power of God:
“Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant” (Luke 1:68-72; see also Psalm 18:2).
Jesus Christ, the anointed One, came the first time to die in our place as our Savior. He will return the second time with power, the horn of salvation to defeat all enemies and establish the Kingdom of God. Study more about this in our article “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
To deepen your understanding of Bible prophecy, download our comprehensive free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.