7. Interpreting Symbols

It is readily apparent that the book of Revelation is unique among New Testament books in its heavy use of symbols. What is not so apparent is how much the approach one takes to understanding the symbols flavors the understanding of the text. Fruchtenbaum has observed the tendency toward two extremes:

The existence of these symbols has led to two extremes. One extreme states that the existence of these symbols shows that this book cannot be understood and must simply be interpreted in terms of a general conflict between good and evil, the good winning out in the end. Beyond this, they say the book is not to be understood in any great detail. This is how the book has suffered from its enemies. In the second extreme, the symbols are used for unchecked speculation, sensationalism, and all kinds of guesswork in trying to interpret these symbols in terms of current events. Such speculation has resulted in farfetched interpretations, and changes are made as current events change. It has also led to date-setting. In this area, the book of Revelation has suffered at the hands of its friends. There is a balance between the two extremes.1

The schemes which interpreters have proposed in order to try and “understand” the book of Revelation run from one extreme to the other, but most often deny a straight-forward reading in favor of obscure theories involving the symbols it contains:

E. Boring has summarized an approach to interpretation of symbols in the Apocalypse that has come to be widely held. In his view, the symbols are not to be decoded into propositional language that refers to objective realities, but are to be left as nonobjectifying pictorial language that only points to ultimate categories of language. . . . Revelation’s language does not adhere to the laws of logical propositional language and is noninferential because John attempts to communicate the reality of God’s transcendent world by words bounded by space and time. [emphasis added]2

One wonders how the book can claim to be revealing information to show His servants (Rev. Rev. 1:1+) if the language failed to “adhere to the laws of logical propositional language and is noninferential”?

In this section, we discuss what is perhaps the most important aspect of studying the book of Revelation: how to read and understand the text. While this may sound simple, it is amazing how frequently the principles of normative reading and comprehension are jettisoned when expositors come to the book of Revelation.


Notes

1 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah, rev ed. (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2003), 11.

2 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 65.