Symbols in the Book of Revelation
More than anything it is the vivid and striking imagery in the book of Revelation which has given it a lasting place in the Christian consciousness. It is at the heart of the expressive power of the book. And yet, so rich and varied is the symbolism that it has been possible for readers and commentators to find just about anything one wishes in it, subjecting the images and symbols to a wide range of interpretation. However, the correctness and accuracy of any interpretive approach depends on properly understanding the nature and character of the symbols themselves. As symbols, one may isolate specific objects, personages, details, and the like; at the same time, these are built up within larger symbolic matrices. Each visionary scene or episode in the book represents a matrix of connected symbols; the larger vision-cycles are even more complex, each with its own symbolic marker—seal, trumpet, offering-dish.
When approaching the visionary symbols and images of the book, I would maintain that there are three important principles that must be observed, if one hopes to obtain a sound understanding of what is being communicated through this symbolism:
- The symbolic, figurative character of the imagery must be recognized throughout and consistently applied.
- Most of the symbols carry multiple layers of meaning, being drawn from multiple strands of tradition
- There is a fundamental dual-aspect to a number of the major symbols (and lines of symbolism) in the book
1. The Symbolic character of the imagery
In referring to the images in the book of Revelation as symbols, and symbolic, we mean that the image is a specific sign which represents another idea or thing—that is, something other that what is typically understood by the image itself (i.e. the sign vs. what it signifies). As a rather obvious example, the image of a lamb (a)rni/on), used repeatedly in a number of visions, does not simply refer to the animal (i.e. an ordinary lamb), but symbolizes the person of Jesus Christ, in his exalted position and state in heaven following his death and resurrection. Even a casual reading by someone unfamiliar with early Christian symbolism would likely lead to this conclusion, based on how the lamb-image is used in context. It becomes all the more clear when one is aware of the various strands of tradition that go into this association of Jesus with a lamb. Indeed, for early Christians, there was no real need to explain the symbolism; for most believers, it would have been readily apparent.
A basic problem with much interpretation, especially among more traditional-conservative commentators, is the inconsistent way these symbols are treated, with a tendency to understand them in a ‘literal’, concrete way whenever possible. As an example, the Temple in 11:1-2 is actually the Jerusalem Temple complex, but the Prostitute in chapter 17 is not an actual prostitute; similarly, the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel are actually 144,000 Israelites, but the seven-headed Sea-creature is not an actual seven-headed hybrid animal coming out of the sea. In my view, this distorts and misreads the symbolism of the book—if the seven-headed creature from the sea is symbolic and figurative, then almost certainly the image of the 144,000 from the twelve tribes is symbolic as well.
That these images are all substantially symbolic seems to me to be without question; however, there may be some difference in the degree or extent of the symbolism. For example, a seven-headed monster is more clearly figurative than other images; and, while the specific detail of 3½ or 1000 years is symbolic, it still relates to a period of time. Moreover, the symbolism may be rooted in a particular aspect of the imagery, or may relate specifically to how different images are connected. In this regard, the visions of Revelation are comparable to the Gospel parables of Jesus—the basis of the (figurative) illustration lies more in the overall scenario and portrait than in the meaning that is attached to each individual detail.
In the notes, I have made every attempt to analyze the symbolism for each vision carefully, with the guiding premise that, in every case, the imagery is symbolic, and not to be understood in a concrete, literalist manner.
2. Multiple Layers of Meaning
In many instances, the symbols in the visions carry multiple layers of meaning, based on their manifold derivation, drawing upon different strands of tradition. It is often possible to demonstrate this (and I have done so at many places in the notes), isolating the distinct strands, which tend to come from three broad lines of tradition:
- The Old Testament Scriptures, along with subsequent Jewish (eschatological and Messianic) tradition
- The surrounding Greco-Roman world—its literature, culture, manner of expression, et al.
- The life experience of believers, both in community and in relation to the wider (Greco-Roman [pagan] and Jewish) world; obviously, it is the experience of believers in Asia Minor, in the late-first century A.D., that informs the imagery.
The first line of tradition is perhaps the most notable. The visions in the book are packed full of references and allusions to Old Testament and Jewish tradition; it may be possible to distinguish these further:
- Historical references, especially to passages and episodes which relate to the idea of God’s Judgment upon the wicked—Moses and the Exodus (i.e. the plagues on Egypt), Sodom and Gomorrah, the prophetic oracles (in Joel, Ezekiel, Zechariah) depicting the collective Judgment on the Nations, etc.
- Eschatological and Messianic references—these are replete throughout, but may be seen as including the many references to the book of Daniel
- Images specifically related to the idea (and identity) of Israel as the people of God—regularly applied to believers as the people of God in the New Covenant (and New Age)
- Cosmological mythic/archetypal images, including motifs from the Creation narrative (Paradise, river, tree of life, etc); a prominent line of Near Eastern mythic tradition is associated with the Dragon/Sea-creature imagery in the second half of the book (chapters 12-13ff), and other examples could be cited as well.
With regard to the second area, it is the traditional imagery of the imperial cult that is most to be noted, with many details and motifs in the visions alluding in various ways to Roman imperial iconography. It is hard to know how readily the Greek-speaking readers/hearers at the time would have picked up on these allusions, but I suspect that the visions communicated this aspect to them clearly enough, so immersed as they were within the surrounding Roman culture.
The same Roman (imperial) environment relates to the third area—the life-experience of believers in Asia Minor. It was their sense of common identity, in the face of the surrounding pagan (and Roman imperial) culture, which establishes the fundamental conflict that runs through the visionary narrative. The experience of actual persecution at the time, to varying degrees, informs the depiction of the more intense and widespread persecution to come, during the period of distress. The community life and identity of believers informs the symbolism in many other ways as well; I have attempted to bring out this aspect at a number of points in the notes.
3. A Dual-Aspect to the Symbolism
In addition to the multiple layers of meaning to the symbols, it is possible to recognized a wider dual-aspect to the major strands of symbolism. Generally speaking, this may be defined as a dualism consisting of an earthly and heavenly aspect. It does not apply so much to individual symbols as it does to the larger symbolic matrices. I would note three areas where it is most prevalent, and where it is important to recognize its application to the meaning of the symbolism:
- Believers as the People of God—in their heavenly aspect, they are shown existing in an exalted state, in heaven, along with multitudes of heavenly beings; at the same time, in their earthly aspect, they face oppression and persecution from the forces of evil at work in the world. Only in the closing chapters, during the New Age, when the heavenly “Jerusalem” descends to earth, are both aspects united.
- The Forces of Evil—involving the various symbols of the Dragon, Sea-creature, the “Great City”, Prostitute, etc.; there is similarly a ‘heavenly’ and earthly aspect. Most of the visions focus on the manifestation of evil on earth, but throughout there is a transcendent, cosmic aspect, evident most clearly in the symbol of the Dragon, who, in chapter 12, is depicted in conflict with the People of God both on earth and in heaven.
- The Judgment—again, there is both an earthly and heavenly aspect to the end-time Judgment; for the most part, the visions (esp. the Trumpet- and Bowl-cycles) focus on the earthly aspect, but, during the later chapters especially, the heavenly aspect is more clearly in view.