Symbols in Revelation
Anyone who has read the book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, has come face to face with many strange, fairy-tale-like creatures and events. Huge dragons attempt to swallow children, a beast with multiple heads arises from the midst of the sea, angels dump golden bowls out on the Earth, and animals with eyes covering their bodies lift their voices in praise to God. Needless to say, the book of Revelation is quite unique among the books of the Bible. The natural question that arises from reading the book is, “What does it all mean?”
In this brief article, I cannot explore the answer to that question in an in-depth fashion. However, I would like to provide two principles that can greatly increase a person’s understanding of the book of Revelation.
The first principle is the fact that the book of Revelation uses extensive figurative language. Revelation is a book of apocalyptic literature. Several books of Jewish apocalyptic literature are available for study. In the Old Testament, the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Joel contain apocalyptic literature. Also, certain extrabiblical books such as the Book of Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, and the Book of Baruch fall into the literary category of apocalyptic writings. Apocalyptic literature uses signs and symbols to veil its message to outside readers. This type of literature was written when the Jewish nation was amidst one of its most tumultuous times—when the Israelites were under attack, or ruled over, by another powerful nation. Ray Summers explained as follows: “The personal safety of both writer and reader was endangered if the persecutors understood the true meaning of the book. For this reason the message of the apocalypse was written so as to conceal and to reveal—to conceal the message from the outsider but to reveal its message to the initiated” (1951, p. 5)
Apocalyptic language uses a system of figurative language. This type of language uses symbols to get across to its readers specific messages. We use figurative language everyday. Suppose a person said that his boss “flew off the handle” one day at work. The mental picture of that phrase might be of a person attached to a teapot handle flying off using a pair of wings, or it might be of a hammerhead in the shape of a person coming dislodged from its handle. But the true meaning of the phrase is that the boss became very angry. To illustrate further, suppose someone said that his dog “kicked the bucket.” Literally, we would be watching for a Kung Fu dog that could abuse a container with his feet, but the figurative meaning simply is that the person’s dog died. Now, suppose that we write down a long list of these figurative statements and bury them in a time capsule. In 2,000 years, a civilization not familiar with such statements uncovers our list and reads the figurative language. Our kicking dog would be just as confusing to them as the seven-headed beast of Revelation is to us today. Therefore, we must read Revelation with figurative language at the forefront of our mind, remembering that apocalyptic literature had an elaborate system of such language that was used to convey social and political happenings of the time.
The first chapters of Revelation offer several examples that explain some of the symbols. For instance, in chapter one verses 12-17 we read about “One like the Son of Man” who walks among seven golden lampstands and who has a “sharp two-edged sword” coming out of His mouth—a frightening, strange picture to be sure. But when we continue to read, we find that this man is Jesus, and the seven lampstands are the “seven churches” of Asia (1:20). But what does the sword represent? In apocalyptic literature, a sword coming out of someone’s mouth meant that they were coming to judge a group of people. In Ephesians 6:17, Paul explained that the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. Hebrews 4:12 explains that “the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.” And John 12:48 informs us that the words of Jesus will judge all people at the last days. The sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth in Revelation 1 is God’s Word, which Jesus was using to judge the churches. Putting the entire picture together, we see Jesus walking among the churches of Asia, cutting out the cancers of sin with the Word of God. While I do not have the space here to go through all of the apocalyptic symbols in this much detail, a brief reading of the book will show that horns often represent kings, numbers represent strength, weakness, perfection, or imperfection, and beasts represent evil nations or powers.
But please do not think that every symbol in Revelation is easy to understand, or that its exact meaning is easy to figure out. Many of the figurative pictures in the latter parts of the book are not quite as clear as we would like them to be. Therefore, we also must keep in mind the second principle necessary to a proper understanding of the book of Revelation: Nothing in Revelation will contradict anything else in the Bible. For instance, many religious people have gone to Revelation 20:1-11 to suggest that Christ will return to the Earth and reign for a thousand years with His saints. First, using the figurative language principle, the 1,000-year period stands for something other than a literal thousand years. Second, the passage in 2 Peter 3:10-13 clearly states that the “earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” And 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 records that Christians will be caught up to meet Christ in the air. Nowhere does the New Testament teach or imply that Jesus will ever set foot on this Earth again. In order to make the figurative language of Revelation 20 accommodate such a theory, a person must make it contradict the clear language found elsewhere in the New Testament.
The book of Revelation introduces many challenges to the student of the Bible. Yet, using these two principles can help anyone get more of God’s intended message out of the book.
Summers, Ray (1951), Worthy Is The Lamb (Nashville: Broadman).