In Rev. 1:1 we are told that God “made known” to John the contents of the book through an angel. Whereas the verb semaino often simply means “make known, report, communicate,” its “more concrete and at least equally common sense is ‘show by a sign,’ ‘give (or make) signs (or signals),’ or ‘signify.’ . . . Semaino typically has this idea of symbolic communication when it is not used in the general sense of ‘make known.’ . . . The Gospel writers use the cognate noun semeion repeatedly to refer to Jesus’ miracles as outward ‘signs’ or ‘symbols’ of his attributes and mission” (Beale, 51). It is most likely, then, that John’s choice of semaino instead of gnorizo (“make known”) was intentional. His point is that symbolic visions and their interpretation are going to be the primary means of communication in his book.
We should also note the use in 1:1 of the verb “to show” (deiknumi). God the Father gave Jesus a revelation that he was to “show” his servants. This is a word that refers “to a revelation through the medium of symbolic heavenly visions communicated through an angel” (Beale, 52). Throughout the book we read how John “saw” these pictorial revelations that were “shown” to him.
Most dispensational commentators contend that we should interpret the images in Revelation literally except where the context dictates otherwise. I contend that just the opposite is the case. The essence of Revelation is symbolic imagery. The language is predominantly figurative and should be interpreted as such except where a literal understanding is required by the context.
Another key point to keep in mind is explained by Kenneth Gentry:
“We must be careful to distinguish between a ‘figurative’ use of language (a legitimate function of the grammatical-historical method) and a ‘spiritual’ interpretive methodology. Figurative expressions portray historical events by means of colorful, dramatic, and overdrawn descriptions. Spiritual interpretation, however, is a system of hermeneutics that evacuates all historical sense from a text in order to replace it with an abstract spiritual reality” (The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? p. 15).
Robert Mounce makes much the same point when he says: “that the language of prophecy is highly figurative has nothing to do with the reality of the events predicted. Symbolism is not a denial of historicity but a matter of literary genre” (Revelation, p. 218).
A. Four Levels of Communication in Revelation
When interpreting Revelation it is important to keep in mind four levels of communication or revelation (see Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” JETS, Vol. 36 [March 1993]:41-54).
(1) The linguistic level – This is the text itself as recorded by John, i.e., the configuration of words that we read in the book.
(2) The visionary level – This is John’s actual visionary experience. Through the Spirit and the mediation of an angel, God gave John visions that later formed the basis for what is textually recorded in the book.
(3) The referential level – This consists of the particular historical identification of the objects seen in the vision. In other words, the object or image seen usually stands for or symbolizes something or someone that appears in history.
(4) The symbolic level – This has in view the meaning of the historical referents. It is one thing to identify to what, in historical reality, the image points. It is yet another thing to ascertain what the image connotes or means or says about its referent.
Poythress uses the Beast in Revelation 13 as an example. On the linguistic level we have the actual text of Rev. 13:1-8 which John wrote and sent to the seven churches in Asia. Before writing that text John had a visionary experience “in the Spirit” (1:10; 4:2) as a result of which he “saw” the Beast. But the Beast stands for or symbolizes something or someone in history. In all likelihood, its seven heads and ten horns also have historical referents of their own. Lastly, the symbolic imagery in which the Beast is, as it were, clothed, means something in terms of the Beast’s character and activity. This information about the beast, notes Poythress, “is conveyed in symbolic, imagistic form rather than through literal photographic depictions or through unadorned prose description. The description of the beast in 13:1-8 is not intended as a photographic rendering of a literal animal but as a symbolic representation of a human being or an historical institution. Hence understanding the significance of the imagery involves making a transition from symbols to actual historical significance” (42).
Other examples could be cited, such as the vision of Christ in 5:6-8. There is the actual linguistic material in vv. 6-8 (the words themselves). There is the visionary experience of John in “seeing” Christ in the form of a lamb. There is the referential level, in which the lamb points to Christ, enthroned at God’s right hand. And there is the symbolic level, where we ask about the meaning of a lamb, its seven horns, its seven eyes, etc. Beale points to 19:7-8 as yet another, among many, examples. There we have the linguistic elements that can be read or heard. “The images of a bride and fine line garments are what John saw on the visionary level. On the referential level the picture of the bride and bridegroom’s wedding refers to actual believers enjoying some form of communion with Christ, probably after his second coming. Finally, the symbolic level refers to whatever we determine to be the precise meaning of the communion of the bride with the bridegroom and of the wedding imagery in general” (53).
The tendency of some dispensational commentators is to “understand the visions as direct reproductions of historical events that are so strange and extraordinary that they could not have occurred in past history up to the present; therefore, they portray literally events to happen in the future, directly before Christ’s final coming” (Beale, 53). In other words, they argue for a straightforward correspondence between the textual description and a historical event. In effect, they ignore the visionary and symbolic levels of communication by collapsing them into the referential, historical. I.e., they move from (1) to (3) (see above) as if what the text records is literally what history reveals. Simply put, we must recognize that the descriptions in Revelation “are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols” (Metzger, Breaking the Code, 14).
B. Observations on the nature of figurative and symbolic language
· We must be careful to remember that simply because something is portrayed in figurative or non-literal terms does not mean it is less truthful or less real. In other words, literal is not synonymous with true nor is symbolic synonymous with false or mythological.
· How might we know if a text is figurative or literal? Here are a few guidelines:
(1) Would there be a mismatch between subject and predicate if the sentence were taken literally? In other words, when we read that “God’s name is a high tower” we are obviously dealing with a linguistic mismatch: God’s name is not physically identical to a building of inanimate stone or brick. We see this in Rev. 1:20 where John says, “the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” Again, when David declares, “The Lord is my shepherd,” he is using the latter word in a metaphorical sense. As Bruce Waltke has pointed out, “the word ‘shepherd,’ which is at home with words which have reference to animal husbandry, is here transferred and juxtaposed with the Lord, a word pertaining to a transcendent, spiritual being. . . . When David prayed, ‘Cause me to hear joy and gladness,’ he juxtaposed objects that refer to an emotional state with a verb that refers to a physical activity” (“Historical Grammatical Problems,” unpublished paper, 56).
(2) If taken literally, would the statement be logically absurd or contradictory to what we know from the rest of Scripture or from creation? When we read that “the mountains clapped their hands” it is obvious we are dealing with figurative language. So, too, when John says that he “ate the book” (Rev. 10:10).
(3) Context must always be consulted. Often there are clues both in what precedes and what follows that will alert us to the presence of symbolic language.
(4) When it comes to the book of Revelation, we need to determine if there is clear and repeated figurative use of the same word elsewhere.
· The two most common figures of speech are simile and metaphor. A simile is an explicit or formal comparison which employs words such as “like” or “as.” There are over 70 similes in the book of Revelation alone. E.g., “And His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire” (1:14). A metaphor is an implicit or unexpressed comparison in which one thing is described in terms of another. Unlike the simile which says “A is like/as B,” the metaphor directly asserts that “A is B.” Two metaphorical statements are found in Rev. 1:20b where we read: “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
We should also keep in mind that not everything in a symbolic vision is necessarily meant to be interpreted. For example, “when John tells us that the heavenly Jerusalem is a perfect cube, fifteen hundred miles in length, breadth and height, and that it is constructed of pure gold, transparent like crystal, he obviously does not expect us to visualize [or interpret] it, but is setting out to overwhelm the imagination” (Caird, 149). Another example would be the vision of the risen Christ in Revelation 1. Whereas there may be theological significance in a few of the items, Caird insists that any attempt to compile a catalogue of meanings for each element is “to unweave the rainbow” (25). In other words,
"John uses his allusions not as a code in which each symbol requires separate and exact translation, but rather for their evocative and emotive power. This is not photographic art. His aim is to set the echoes of memory and association ringing. The humbling sense of the sublime and the majestic which men experience at the sight of a roaring cataract [waterfall] or the midday sun is the nearest equivalent to the awe evoked by a vision of the divine. John has seen the risen Christ, clothed in all the attributes of deity, and he wishes to call forth from his readers the same response of overwhelming and annihilating wonder which he experienced in his prophetic trance” (25-26).
C. Observations on Numerical Symbolism in Revelation
The most theologically significant numbers in Revelation are 3, 4, 7, 12, and their multiples. Three is generally regarded as the number of deity. We will look briefly at occurrences of 4, 7, and 12.
The number four is the number of the world.
· The earth has four corners (7:1; 20:8) and four winds (7:1).
· The created world is categorized in four divisions. Whereas all other doxologies in Revelation are either seven-fold (5:12; 7:12) or threefold (4:9,11; 19:2), in 5:13 we read of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” offering to God a four-fold doxology: “blessing and honor and glory and might”. According to Bauckham, “Revelation makes greater use of an alternative fourfold division of creation: earth, sea, (rivers and) springs, heaven (8:7-12; 14:7; 16:2-9).
· These four parts of creation are respectively the targets of the judgments of the first four trumpets (8:7-12) and the first four bowls (16:2-9)” (Climax of Prophecy, 31).
· It is certainly no accident, notes Bauckham, “that the list of cargoes which Babylon (Rome) imports from ‘the merchants of the earth’ (18:11-13) comprises twenty-eight (4x7) items. They are listed as representative of all the products of the whole world” (31).
· We should also note the four references to the seven Spirits (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) which undoubtedly represent the fullness of divine power “sent out into all the earth.”
· Related to this are the four references to the seven churches (1:4,11,20[twice]), suggesting that they represent all the churches of the world.
· There are the four living creatures (chps. 4-5) and the four horsemen (chp. 6)
· In addition to the four references to the seven Spirits there are fourteen references to “the Spirit,” most likely a deliberate correspondence to the fourteen references to “Jesus”.
Seven is generally acknowledged to be the number of completeness or totality, hence a list of seven can be representative of all in a certain category. A case in point would be the seven churches of Asia standing as representative for all churches. There are seven beatitudes (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7,14), pointing to the fullness of blessing that comes to those who qualify.
Several titles for God occur seven times each in Revelation. “In placing just seven occurrences of these divine titles within his work, John was not just playing a literary game. It was one of the ways in which he wrote theological meaning into the detail of the composition of his work. We could say that he buried in the literary composition of his work theological significance which few readers have subsequently unearthed” (Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 33). Again, “just as the seven beatitudes scattered throughout the book express the fullness of divine blessing on those who obey the message of the prophecy, so the seven occurrences of a divine title indicate the fullness of the divine being to which that title points” (33).
· The full title “the Lord God Almighty” occurs seven times (1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 19:6; 21:22).
· The designation of God as “the One who sits on the throne” occurs seven times (4:9; 5:1,7,13; 6:16; 7:15; 21:5).
· The word “Christ” (including occurrences of “Jesus Christ”) occurs seven times.
· The name “Jesus” occurs fourteen times, seven of which are in connection with the word “witness” (1:2,9; 12:17; 17:6; 19:10[twice]; 20:4). It may well be that the association of “Jesus” with “witness” occurs 7x2 times because two is the number of bearing witness.
· The word translated “coming” (erchomai), spoken by Jesus as either a promise or a threat, occurs seven times (2:5,16; 3:11; 16:15; 22:6,12,20).
· The word “Lamb” occurs twenty-eight (7x4) times. Seven of these are in phrases linking God and the Lamb (5:13; 6:16; 7:10; 14:4; 21:22; 22:1,3). “Since it is through the Lamb’s conquest that God’s rule over his creation comes about, the 7 x 4 occurrences of ‘Lamb’ appropriately indicate the worldwide scope of his complete victory [4 being the number of the earth or world]” (34).
· Corresponding to the 7 x 4 occurrences of the Lamb are the seven occurrences of the fourfold phrase by which Revelation designates the nations of the world: “peoples and tribes and languages and nations. Although the phrase varies each time it occurs, it is always four-fold (5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15).
· We also note that the word “prophecy” occurs seven times (1:3; 11:6; 19:10; 22:7,10,18,19).
· The word “abyss” occurs seven times (9:1,2,11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1,3) as does “altar” when it is located in heaven (6:9; 8:3[twice],5; 9:13; 14:18; 16:7). So also “sickle” (all in 14:14-19).
· There are the obvious three series of judgments consisting of seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls, the expression of complete and total wrath against the unbelieving world. There are also the seven thunders of 10:3-4 whose judgments are cancelled.
· There are seven lampstands, seven kings, seven mountains, seven heads, seven horns, and seven eyes.
· Most commentators recognize in one form or another seven major divisions in the book (more on this later).
· The powers of evil are mentioned three (16:13) or seven times only when it is obvious that they are parodying the divine (12:3; 13:1; 17:3,7,9-11).
· Twelve is the number of the people of God (7:4-8; 12:1; 14:1; 21:12,14), squared for completeness, multiplied by a thousand to suggest vast numbers (144,000 - 7:4-8; 14:1; 21:17).
· In 21:9-22:5, where we find the description of the New Jerusalem, twelve occurs twelve times (if, in addition to the ten occurrences of the word “twelve” one counts as two further occurrences the four threes of 21:13 and the list of the ordinals up to the twelfth in 21:19-20).
· We should also note that the words “God” and “Lamb” each occur seven times within the same portion of text (“God” – 21:10,11,22,23; 22:1,3,5; “Lamb” – 21:9,14,22,23,27; 22:1,3).