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7.4. Understanding Symbols and Figures

Having discussed the prevalence and dangers of allegorical interpretation, we now discuss how to understand the many symbols and figures found throughout the book of Revelation. This is the area where many commentators, in our view, take a wrong turn. They utilize the symbolic content of the book as license to depart from normative interpretation which then fuels their departure from the plain meaning of the text.

As we previously mentioned, one way in which this is done is by using the symbolic imagery within the book to cast it into the apocalyptic genre, similar to many uninspired (and fraudulent) writings which contain similar literary devices. Once this is done, interpreters such as Gregg can attempt to turn hermeneutics on its head. Another approach, perhaps best illustrated by Beale, is to see in the symbols a sort of encoding in which the truth of God’s message is veiled in symbols for transport across the page. The use of symbols becomes an “obvious” indication that non-literal interpretation is intended. Beale uses one of several possible meanings of a single Greek word to justify hundreds of pages of non-literal exposition:

Σημαίνω [Sēmainō] [“signified,” Rev. Rev. 1:1+] can overlap with the more general and abstract idea of “make known” in the sense of “indicate,” “declare,” “be manifest.” But its more concrete and at least equally common sense is “show by a sign,” “give (or make) signs (or signals),” or “signify” . . . σημαίνω [sēmainō] typically has the idea of symbolic communication when it is not used in the general sense of “make known.” . . . Of its five other NT occurrences, two have the sense of “make known” (Acts Acts 11:28; Acts 25:27), . . . three others are in John’s Gospel where it summarizes Jesus’ pictorial description of crucifixion (John John 12:33; John 18:32; John 21:19). . . . The symbolic use of σημαίνω [sēmainō] in Daniel Dan. 2:1 defines the use in Rev. Rev. 1:1+ as referring to symbolic communication and not mere general conveyance of information . . . [indicating] that a symbolic vision and its interpretation is going to be part of the warp and woof of the means of communication throughout Revelation. . . . Some commentators contend that since Revelation sometimes explicitly explains the meaning of an image in a vision there is a “presumption that, where expressions are not explained, they can normally be interpreted according to their natural [i.e., literal] meaning, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise”. . . . But the results of the analysis of Rev. Rev. 1:1+ indicated that this rule should be turned on its head: we are told in the book’s introduction that the majority of the material in it is revelatory symbolism . . . Hence, the predominant manner by which to approach the material will be according to a non-literal interpretive method. [emphasis added]1

Elsewhere Beale states:

As we have seen, Rev. Rev. 1:1+ programmatically introduces the pictorial visions of the book as having a symbolic meaning without any one-to-one relation to literal historical events. [emphasis added]2

Having conveniently dispatched normative hermeneutics, Beale fails to offer anything substantive in its place. As with all interpretations which major on “symbolic meanings,” the meaning is to be found in the interpreter’s own ideas. Contrary to Beale’s assertion that the symbols are “without any one-to-one relation to literal historical events,” Osborne follows most literal interpreters in recognizing the symbols as representing literal events and personas.3

As Thomas observes, Beale has made the mistake of confusing the way in which the revelation was made (via symbols) with how it should be interpreted by those who follow:

The verb ἐσήμανεν [esēmanen] (“he signified”) in Rev. Rev. 1:1+ furnishes an advance notice of the symbolic nature of God’s communication with John. This has nothing to do with how the resultant communication should be interpreted, . . . [interpreters] fail to distinguish between the process of revelation and that of interpretation.4

It is also frequently the case that commentators attempt to utilize the appearance of one symbol as license to treat the entire passage in a symbolic way.5 But each symbol must be treated individually as there are numerous cases where symbols are embedded among non-symbolic vision.

Once a prophecy is found to contain symbols, interpreters often succumb to the temptation of treating everything else in that prophecy as symbolic. . . . The presence of symbols in a prophecy, however, does not indicate that everything else in that prophecy is symbolical. The designation of symbols must be on an individual basis. Each symbol must be carefully examined, weighed, and adequately supported by strong evidence before a symbolical designation is made. Symbols are not cheaper by the dozen.6

Symbols are frequently employed in the book of Revelation within similes where resemblance is emphasized.7

Revelation is interpreted from a literal base, taking into account comparative language that points to a literal ultimate meaning. Two words indicate that comparative language is being used: ὥς [hōs] and ὅμοιος [homoios] . Hos and words related to it are used sixty-eight times in Revelation and approximately 416 elsewhere in the New Testament. Homoios is used twenty-two times in Revelation and about twenty-six times in the rest of the New Testament. Both words are used for comparison and should be translated “Like, as, like as, it seemed to be, something like, etc.” [Often, hos] indicates John is comparing what he sees (something beyond his own experience or comprehension) to the closest known object with which he is familiar. . . . John uses comparative language to describe a literal event, not a symbolic or even figurative event, and certainly not an allegorical event.8

Symbols employed within simile have several advantages over other literary forms of communication. A simile can carry a richness of communication which a simple non-symbolic statement cannot (e.g., the description of the Beast in Rev. Rev. 13:2+). Simile is also used when that which is being described exceeds the experience of the writer and the symbol is the best analogy at hand for the writer to convey the sense of what he is seeing (e.g., the description of the demonic locusts in Rev. Rev. 9:7-10+). The utilization of simile is not license for interpreting the comparisons within the text as some form of purely symbolic communication.

As for determining whether a literal object or figurative symbol is involved, we note several guidelines:

First, the interpreter should accept as symbols that which is so designated in the context or seen under the harmony of prophecy. . . . Second, the interpreter should accept as symbols those elements that are truly impossible in the realm of reality, taking care to note that eschatological times are real times. . . . [But the] prophetic Scriptures contain many descriptions of the future that are possible or plausible. In such instances, the interpreter should not assign these to the realm of symbolism.9

To these we may add a third from Tan:

The determination of what is figurative and what nonfigurative in prophecy is a question centuries old. From Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana to the present, interpreters have attempted to give different rules and guidelines. . . . the key to determining the figurative from the nonfigurative lies in ascertaining whether a given word or act is at variance with the essential nature of the subject being discussed. If a word or act, taken in the literal sense, fails to harmonize with either the flow of thought in the text or context, or with the analogy of Scripture, it is to be understood as figurative. Otherwise, it is nonfigurative.10

As an example, Tan’s guideline can be applied productively in the case of the binding of Satan:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years (Rev. Rev. 20:1-2+)

To answer the question whether the chain is literal, one need only observe that Satan is spirit and cannot be bound by material objects. Therefore, the chain is figurative of the bondage under which Satan will be placed. Learning to identify which aspects of a passage are figurative and which are literal is essential for correct interpretation:

Some seem to believe that if anything in a given passage is symbolic, then everything must be symbolic . . . . In contrast, the approach recommended here can be illustrated by considering the statement, “It was raining cats and dogs outside.” . . . The key to a correct interpretation is (a) to recognize that there can be both literal and figurative elements in the same text and (b) to seek to discern which aspects of the text fal into which category. In this illustration, for example, “It was raining . . . outside” should be taken literally, and the “cats and dogs” should be taken figuratively. Both the literal and the figurative function together to communicate that it was raining very hard.11

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of determining whether a passage conveys figurative or literal events is found in the fact that prophetic content can span periods of time far beyond the time when the vision was first given. Thus, things which seemed clearly to be figurative at the time of writing due to their impossibility (e.g., the two hundred million horsemen in Rev. Rev. 9:16+; the peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations viewing the dead bodies of the two witnesses in Rev. Rev. 11:9+) later become literally possible (e.g., a large world population; the advent of worldwide broadcasting).

Writing almost one-half century ago, Tenney observed:

The object like a burning mountain cast into the sea (Rev. Rev. 8:8+), the opening of the bottomless pit (Rev. Rev. 9:2+), and many other episodes must be interpreted symbolically if they are to be taken as applying to current or to past history. If they are yet to come, they may be a more accurate description of actual phenomena than most expositors have realized, for the physical and psychical researches of recent years have opened to the mind of man worlds that in John’s time were completely unknown. The atom bomb, guided missiles, and the scientific devices of modern warfare have made the Apocalypse seem much less apocalyptic [dramatic hyperbole] than it did fifty years ago.12

The fact that Revelation Rev. 19:1+ sets forth the Second Coming of Christ which has obviously not yet occurred renders unlikely the stance of Osborne and others who hold that all the symbols found in the book were understood by the original readers:

We no longer need to guess what modern events may be prophesied, for every symbol was understandable to the first-century readers. . . . we seek . . . the background knowledge from the first century to unlock the tensive symbols and to see what the original readers would have understood when they read them. This is not a perfect science, of course, and scholars debate the background behind each symbol. [emphasis added]13

Since some of the symbols relate events which have not yet been fulfilled, we cannot simply assert they were all understood by the original readers. For one thing, it is highly unlikely that the original readers had access to the entire corpus which came to be recognized as the canon of Scripture, thereby lacking perhaps the most important key to understanding some of the symbols in the book of Revelation: the comparison of related passages (analogy) of Scripture. (See our discussion on the audience and purpose of the book for more on this.) The insistence that all symbols were understood by the readers of John’s day ignores the reality that not even John understood everything which he saw (Rev. Rev. 7:13-14+). It is important to notice that John is told to write, “what you see ” (Rev. Rev. 1:11+) rather than what he understood. In other words, John was to record his immediate experiences and visions. He was not given the vision and then told to cogitate over it for a period of time to eventually produce a literary masterpiece in the apocalyptic genre perfectly understandable to first century readers!

Fortunately, many of the symbols are explained in their immediate context. And we are also blessed with the entire corpus of inspired Scripture which we can apply to gain an understanding of what John relates.14

It is worth mentioning another aspect of symbols in prophetic Scripture: the tendency of literal interpreters to render symbolic descriptions by way of literal drawings. While these may be interesting or even provocative, it is generally a disservice to the prophetic text to utilize the symbols in such a way. Trench observes the priority of symbolism within the Jewish tradition as being that of conveying truth rather than rendering form:

This description of the glorified Lord (Rev. Rev. 1:16+), . . . may suggest a few reflections on the apocalyptic, and generally the Hebrew symbolism, and on the very significant relations of difference and opposition in which it stands to the Greek. Religion and Art for the Greek ran into one another with no very signal preponderance of the claims of the former over the latter. Even in his religious symbolism the sense of beauty, of form, of proportion, overrules every other, and must at all costs find its satisfaction; so that the first necessity of the symbol is that it shall not affront, that it shall satisfy rather, the aesthetic sense. . . . But with the Hebrew symbolism it is altogether different. The first necessity there is that the symbol should set forth truly and fully the religious idea of which it is intended to be the vehicle. How it would appear when it clothed itself in an outward form and shape, whether it would find favour. . . as satisfying the conditions of beauty, this was quite a secondary consideration; may be confidently affirmed not to have been a consideration at all; . . . but rather that it should remain ever and only a purely mental conception, the unembodied sign of an idea;—I may observe, by the way, that no skill of delineation can make the Cherubim themselves other than unsightly objects to the eye.15

The results of such renderings are often held up to ridicule as the result of the literal method of interpretation. But this misunderstands the purpose of such symbols as being primarily art form rather than representative of characteristics which are not as easily conveyed textually. All the more so when such figures are described by simile providing a definite clue that the image conveyed by the text is only an approximation of the reality being described.


1 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 51.

2 Ibid., 48.

3 “Revelation is a symbolic book, but that does not mean the symbols do not depict literal events.”—Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 16.

4 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 35.

5 “It must be noted, however, that not every object seen in a vision is symbolic. Neither is it true that because some objects in a vision are symbolic, everything else in that vision must be symbolic.”—Mal Couch, Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications), 71.

6 Ibid., 73-74.

7 “In which one thing explicitly (by using like or as) resembles another.”—Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications, 1991), 148.

8 Couch, Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics, 258-259.

9 Ibid., 73-74.

10 Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Dallas, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1993), 137-138.

11 Matthew Waymeyer, Revelation 20 and the Millennial Debate (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2001, 2004), 99-100.

12 Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1957), 142-143.

13 Osborne, Revelation, 16.

14 “The interpretation of such figures is not left up to the reader’s imagination or ingenuity. They must be defined and explained, unambiguously, either in the immediate context or in the broader context of the historical and prophetic Scriptures which John could assume his readers should already have mastered.”—Henry Morris, The Revelation Record (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1983), 24.

15 Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1861), 42-43.

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