Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (13): Apocalyptic Symbolism

Apocalyptic works in general, and the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation in particular, are characterized by the use of symbols to convey truth. In the books of Daniel and Revelation horns and eagles speak, iron can be mixed with clay, leopards can have four heads, and dragons can chase women through the sky! A symbol is any object or description that represents something other than its common meaning. By their very nature, symbols express a double meaning. There is a literal intention; the primary meaning the term has in everyday life. Then there is a second intention; the literal points beyond itself to a second meaning that is evident only in relation to the first meaning. These two meanings can even be opposite! In the book of Revelation the lion is a lamb, death is a victory, and the victim is the victor!

The very vagueness of symbols opens up the possibility of near infinite depth of expression. This makes apocalyptic books both difficult and rich in meaning at the same time. The same symbol can have different meanings in different contexts. Symbolism is a more flexible tool for the portrayal of reality than is ordinary prose. To interpret a given symbol in its context it is necessary to compare the possible meanings inherent in its double intentionality with the literary context in which it is used.

That symbolism is the main literary form of expression in the visions of Daniel is evident from the very first. In Dan 2:45 the strategy of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream/vision is expressed as follows: “This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands– a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. The great God has shown (esȇmane) the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.” The vision of Dan 2 is a pictorial representation of events that were to occur in Nebuchadnezzar’s present and future. The Greek translator of Daniel (LXX) uses to word semainô to express that God “had symbolized” to the king what would take place in the future.

The Book of Revelation opens with a clear allusion to Daniel 2. The language of Rev 1:1 picks up not only on Dan 2:45 and its use of semainô but also the language of “revelation. . . God showed. . . what must come to pass” found in Dan 2:28-30. This allusion to Dan 2 makes it clear that the entire book of Revelation is couched in symbolism as a primary method of communication. Whereas in the rest of the New Testament the language is to be taken as literal unless careful investigation indicates that a symbol is intended, in Revelation the opposite is the case. The language of Revelation is to be taken as symbolic or figurative unless careful investigation indicates that the language must be understood in literal terms. Recognizing that the Apocalypse of John uses symbols and their interpretation as the medium of the message is a fundamental aspect of correct interpretation of the book.

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