Tag Archives: apocalyptic symbolism

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (23): Detecting Apocalyptic Sequences

Before we take up the analysis of Revelation 12, I would like to lay out some principles for detecting apocalyptic sequencing in the symbolic visions of the Apocalypse. It is not appropriate to force a chapter into the historicist mode if that was not the intention of the text. We must allow the characteristics and purposes of each text to emerge out of the text. Only then can we accurately determine whether the chapter is a historical apocalypse or not.

Textual Markers
A significant indicator of an apocalyptic historical sequence is the presence of terms and developments in a text that indicate the successive passage of time. A major reason that the Daniel and Revelation Committee, for example, saw the trumpets as more apocalyptic than the seals was the presence of significant textual markers that time was passing as you moved through the trumpets, while such textual markers are completely missing in the seals.

The seven trumpets (Rev 8:2-11:18), for one thing, contain a number of time periods. There is a period of five months (Rev 9:5,10), a period of forty-two months (Rev 11:2), a period of 1260 days (11:3) and a period of three and a half days (11:9,11). No such periods of time are found anywhere within the seven seals (Rev 4:1-8:1), with the exception of the half-hour at the close. The sequential nature of the trumpets is strongly confirmed by the woe series after the fourth (Rev 8:13). The first woe (fifth trumpet) ends before the second begins (9:12) and the second (sixth trumpet) ends before the third (seventh trumpet) begins (11:14). Trumpets five, six, and seven, therefore, not only occur as a sequence of time, each is completed before the next begins. This is a strong parallel to the apocalyptic sequences of Daniel. One further marker of the passage of time in the trumpets is found in Rev 10:7. There the blowing of the seventh trumpet immediately follows the completion of God’s mystery, which is defined as the preaching of the gospel through God’s servants the prophets. The textual markers in the seventh trumpet, therefore, strongly suggest that the vision of the seven trumpets is to be interpreted as an apocalyptic sequence of historical events. Further research also indicates that the trumpets run from NT times (the time of the human author) to the end of time.

Character Introduction
Another significant indicator of the passage of time in Revelation is the literary strategy we could call character introduction. Consistently throughout the book, the author of Revelation introduces characters in general terms before describing their actions at the time of the vision. In other words, when a character appears in the book for the first time, there is a general description of the character’s appearance, and often a number of prior actions (and occasionally even future actions), followed by a description of the actions the character takes in the context of the vision’s own time and place setting. These character introduction passages normally offer clear markers of sequence.

When Jesus is introduced to John in chapter 1, the historical setting is John’s location on the Island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). John then goes into vision and sees one like a son of man. This is the first appearance of Jesus in the book, although He and His works are mentioned earlier (1:1,4-7). While this passage (Rev 1:9-3:22) has few other characteristics of an apocalyptic prophecy, there is a clear movement in time taking place as you work through the passage. John first hears Jesus’ voice sounding like a trumpet (1:9-11), then he sees and describes Him (1:12-16), then he experiences His comforting and explanatory words (1:17-20), finally he hears His messages to the seven churches (2:1-3:22).

A similar thing happens in chapter 11. The visionary setting of the two witnesses passage is Rev 10:8-11, where a voice out of heaven and the angel of the previous vision (Rev 10:1-7) engage John in a prophetic action (10:8-10), followed by an explanation. As we have seen from our study of Daniel 2 and 7, explanations come to the prophet in terms of his own time and place. Since John continues to be engaged (Rev 11:1-2) and addressed (11:3ff.) in Revelation 11, the standpoint from which John experiences chapter 11 is his own. It is not surprising, therefore, that the major time markers of 42 months and 1260 days are expressed in the future tense (Rev 11:2; Rev 11:3. These periods of time were future from the perspective of John.

The two witnesses themselves are introduced with a description of their appearance and an overall description of their characteristics and their actions in the present (11:4-6) and in the future tense (11:3). These present and future tenses are to be understood from the perspective of an explanation to John in terms of his own time and place. The entire character introduction passage (11:3-6), the elements in future tense (3) as well as those in present tense (4-6), occurs prior to the visionary description that follows (11:7-13).

The following time sequence, therefore, is evident in Rev 10:8-11:12. John is engaged and addressed by a voice from heaven and a visionary angel in his time and place. He then measures the temple, which is to be trampled for 42 months in John’s future, presumably the same period as the 1260 days of 11:3. Then the two witnesses are introduced. Whoever they are, they clearly exist in John’s day (present tenses) and have an ongoing existence. At some future point from John’s perspective, the two witnesses pass through a 1260 day period of testimony. It is only after that period of testimony that the martyrdom of these witnesses and their resurrection is to occur.

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.

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.