Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (14): Apocalyptic Symbolism II

How does one go about interpreting symbols? The best outline of an answer to this question is found in the introduction to G. K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation. First of all, it is important to recognize the way different types of symbolic expressions function. A metaphor, for example, is “a deliberate transgression of a word’s boundaries of meaning.” If one were to say, as Jesus did, “Peter is a rock,” you are transgressing the boundary between a living thing and an inanimate object. You are applying a characteristic of the object, rock, to the man, Peter. While metaphor transgresses the boundaries of both Peter and rock, one’s description of Peter is enriched by the comparison.

While the metaphor, Peter is a rock, is fairly straightforward, Beale points out that symbols are often multiple in meaning, resisting simplicity of comparison. For example, the phrase, “George is a wolf,” may imply that a certain young man is a potentially dangerous sexual predator. But an author could also use that expression to say that George is a dangerous criminal who hurts people and should be feared. But comparison between a man and a wolf could equally focus on the cunning, quickness, and/or relentlessness of wolves in the wild. Such multiple meanings are very common in Revelation. The concept of water, for example, (implied as well as stated) can be a metaphor for washing (Rev 7:15-17), for nutrition (positive: Rev 22:10; negative: Rev 8:11), for power and destruction (Rev 9:14; 17:15) and for something that forms a barrier (Rev 16:12; perhaps 21:1). In such cases the context in which the symbol comes needs to inform the reader as to which of the many possible meanings is to be understood.

A related principle for interpreting symbols is that once a given meaning for a symbol is established in a given work, that same meaning normally carries on to repeated uses of that same symbol later on in the book, unless the context of a later usage points the way to some different understanding in that setting. Where the meaning of a symbol is not provided in a work, it is important to survey the way that symbol was used elsewhere in the literature of the ancient world up to that time. The symbols of Daniel, for example, should be examined where they appear in earlier and contemporary writings of the Old Testament. Valuable information can also be found in the evidence of extra-biblical literature and archaeological artifacts. For the book of Revelation potential backgrounds for a given symbol include the Old Testament in its entirety and the literature and archaeology of the entire ancient world, including Judaism and the Hellenistic culture of the Greco-Roman world. Lay scholars of Daniel and Revelation can access such information in critical commentaries and such resources as Bible dictionaries, scholarly lexicons, and concordances.

Another way to interpret symbols is examine the degree of correspondence between the picture evoked by the symbol and the literal subject of the symbol. In the comparison “George is a wolf” the humanity of subject of the comparison excludes such wolfly associations as fur, pointed ears, and large teeth. Unless George exhibited such characteristics to a considerably greater degree than most humans, it is likely that comparing him to a wolf is restricted to some aspect of the wolf’s behavior rather than its appearance.

How can one detect the presence of a symbol? Beale notes at least six ways. (1) The formal linking of two words of totally different meaning, “the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (2) The use of a key descriptive term to alert the reader to the presence of some unusual meaning, “the mystery of the seven stars.” (3) The impossibility of a literal interpretation, “I ate the book.” (4) A statement that would be outrageously false or contradictory is taken literally, “my two witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lampstands.” (5) Context that renders a literal interpretation probably. (6) Clear and repeated figurative use of the same word elsewhere in the book. Beale notes that the last of these is probably the most consistently helpful.

Another aspect of apocalyptic symbolism mentioned by Beale is the use of numbers, which are to be taken as symbols more often than not. Beale notes that seven is the number of completeness, while four represents an extension of that concept to something universal or worldwide in scope. Twelve represents unity in diversity as in the one nation Israel that is composed of twelve tribes. Ten also represents completeness. In addition to obvious uses of numbers, the book of Revelation is often organized in patterns of fours and sevens. So in Revelation the interpreter needs to give attention not only to the numbers in the book, but to also count groupings of symbols, which may have an extended meaning as a result.

One thought on “Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (14): Apocalyptic Symbolism II

  1. Victor

    Dear Jon Paulien,

    As you mentioned on Twitter regarding the challenge on the Bible, by the immeasurable love and mercy of our God; I understand he allowed me to understand these verses after years of prayer and fasting. Starting with Revelation 17:10-11:

    “And there are seven kings: five are fallen, – This section starts with Pius XII and ends with John Paul II.

    and one is, – This section refers to Benedict XVI.

    and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” – This section refers to Francis.

    “And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.” – This section has not been fulfilled yet but refers to Benedict XVI.

    On regards to the Revelation 13:18, I understand most of the Bible versions called for his number to be 666 but the ESV claims that there are some manuscripts that called for it to be 616 and when we take the only letters that have Roman value of the name which are DIC you arrive to 500 + 100 = 600 and when you add the XVI it also gets to 616.

    Please do not discard this message yet at least wait for the son of perdition to be revealed. I am also a member of the Adventist Church but since I understand this is not an official position of us; I share it with you in a character of personal ministry. If you will like to contact me let me know by the email and I will appreciate that my name isn’t mentioned on this topic for now. I just wanted to let you know before the time comes but I understand if you decide not to publish it yet but I did not know other way to get in contact with you. May the Lord keep blessing your ministry. Our Lord Jesus is coming soon! Maranatha!


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