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Are there any rules on which things in Revelation must be interpreted literally and which symbolically? The one that comes from the back of my mind is that if a certain thing or a character is already given an interpretation in the book itself — like the martyrs in white robes in Revelation 7:13-14 are already explained there:

And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:13-14)

— than they must be interpreted according to that explanation. But what about some other things and characters that go without explanation? I am sure some have already attempted to come up with a set of principles as to how interpret them. Does anyone know?

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If I have time I'll respond to this tonight. But I'm afraid I have too much to say. I might write a book.... –  maj nem ɪz dæn Jan 7 '13 at 20:10
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The answer depends completely on which hermeneutic you follow. I feel like the answers should either designate what hermeneutic they represent, or a "survey answer" is in order. –  Jas 3.1 Jan 7 '13 at 22:29
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@Jas3.1: We probably do need to narrow the scope of the question somehow. We certainly don't want Dan to have to write a book! (At least not a book just to answer one question.) Picking a particular framework would be one way to go. I've raised a general question in the Library if anyone would like to chime in. –  Jon Ericson Jan 7 '13 at 22:43
    
I think that you have to have a framework in mind based on your understanding of the images and parallels of the Old Testament. In other words, the Revelation is the "Union Station" where the images, motifs, and symbolism of the entire Bible are found, and therefore you have to use these parallels to interpret the Revelation. For example, the 666 appears to be some sort of Covenant, which is written on the head (mind) and hand (heart) -- i.e., an exact parallel to Deut 6:6 and Deut 6:8. So some character in Revelation is acting out and mimicking the giving of a Covenant from heaven... –  Joseph Jan 10 '13 at 5:27
    
I recommend the book from the Counterpoints series: Four Views on Revelation. It lets each of the major views express itself and then the others critique with an opportunity for rebuttal. Nicely balanced. –  Frank Luke Sep 13 '13 at 15:57

6 Answers 6

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Since the question involves Literal and Figurative interpretation, let's answer both:

Literal interpretation is when we use the normative historical/grammatical interpretation of the language(ie: the language as it is used and understood at time it was written). This position was exposited by Dr. Dwight Pentecost in Things to Come, the book used to introduce students to eschatology at the Dallas School of Theology, of which Dr. John Walvoord is from.

Figurative interpretation is when the words used describe another reality. We start from the 'historical/grammatical' usage of the language, but it is clear the author never intended the meaning to be understood in the 'historical/grammatical' context. "You must be born again" is such a statement; in fact, Jesus chides Nicodemus for using a normal hermeneutical approach to understand His declaration. It is more than an allegory, for it describes an experience beyond a literary comparison; the language used describes a reality-just not the same reality as the words understood literally.

Symbolic interpretation is Figurative interpretation that directly involves the use of symbols-visual pictures that convey truth. They must be interpreted Figuratively, for their very existence means that there is more to their meaning than their physical appearance.

Sts. Augustine and Irenaeus were prominent in their usage of Figurative interpretation; Augustine even went so far as to say,"In the first place, we must beware of taking a figurative expression literally. For the saying of the apostle applies in this case too: "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." For when what is said figuratively is taken as if it were said literally, it is understood in a carnal manner. And nothing is more fittingly called the death of the soul than when that in it which raises it above the brutes, the intelligence namely, is put in subjection to the flesh by a blind adherence to the letter.(On Christian Doctrine, Ch. 5, Bk 3)

Since Figurative interpretation involves understanding the text in realities beyond it's historical/grammatical context, the 1st Rule of Figurative Interpretation is:

Can the text be understood 'normative' in it's natural setting(one observed in nature)? If it is, then it must be understood Literally; to make it mean what it does not say is to pervert the truth. 'Types and shadows', though figurative, cannot cloud the actual interpretation of the text: for example, Moses's throwing into the waters of Merah of the wood is a 'type' of the cross of Christ, making the bitter waters sweet, but we must never say "he threw Christ's cross into the water" as if there was another cross. Going back to our previous example,"You must be born again", it must be understood figuratively, for the reasons Nicodemus described. It is not 'natural' for a man to be physically reborn.

The 2nd Rule is: Does the symbol occur elsewhere in Scripture, and is it already interpreted elsewhere? 'Sea' or 'waters' is interpreted as "peoples and multitudes, nations and tongues."(Rev. 17:15) since the symbol has already been interpreted, we don't have to surmise the meaning-we know what it means. The only caveat is if it is interpreted 'differently' elsewhere. A 'horn with eyes' is one that 'knows', but we cannot mistake the 'horn with eyes' of Dan. 7:8 which are the spirits of men, vs the "Lamb with 7 Horns and 7 Eyes" which are the 7 spirits of God.(Rev. 5:6)

A 3rd Rule of Figurative interpretation is: Is the same hermeneutic used to interpret the same symbol? The Catholic Church has often been interpreted as the Great Harlot, but it violates this principle. Can a 'Figurative' woman sit on 'Literal' hills? To correct this, 'hills' must not be interpreted Literally, or the 'woman' must have a very big butt!

These are a few of the Rules of Figurative interpretation; time forbids me from examining more.

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1) Thanks for your answer, except I don't understand why "being born again" must be understood figuratively. To me, "to be born" means "to be given a life" or "to receive life", not "to come out of mother's womb" as Nicodemus thought. Therefore, "to be born again" or "to be born of God" is a phrase that should really be taken literally, that is "to be given the very life of God" or "to receive the life of God" in the very literal sense. –  brilliant Sep 12 '13 at 5:53
    
2) In fact, if we insist that "being born again" must be only taken figuratively, than we challenge the genuineness of the fact that the believers were really born of God, and, thus, go against John 1:13 "Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" spoken earlier by the same author in the same piece of writing. –  brilliant Sep 12 '13 at 5:54
    
@brilliant-I share your deep regard for being "born again" and I hope I was able to convey that in my answer. My response is based on the fact that "to be born again" in the historical/grammatical hermeneutic defies the common regular usage of the language: in our day and time the meaning is clearly 'regeneration' but in Nicodemus's time no such word existed-therefore Nicodemus's response. I agree with your conclusion; my case is simply that we must use a hermeneutic other than Literal(historical/grammatical) to arrive at the true meaning. –  user2479 Sep 12 '13 at 13:05
    
"... in our day and time the meaning is clearly 'regeneration' but in Nicodemus's time no such word existed-therefore Nicodemus's response" - Ah, I see. I got it. Thank you. –  brilliant Sep 13 '13 at 0:28

I don't think it's as simple as knowing when to take a verse literally or symbolically. I will attempt to propose a hermeneutical approach to the translation of the book of Revelation. I am going to approach the text from a Christian perspective (as this was the intended audience). I would not call these 'rules,' but rather 'principles' of interpretation that I believe are helpful for understanding the book of Revelation. I will attempt to explain the basis and applicability of these principles by applying them to the larger corpus in which the book of Revelation occurs, the Old and New Testaments of the Christian bible.

Literary Motif & Bias

Just as systematic theology all begins with an organizing motif, many begin their study of the book of Revelation with a theological bias. For instance, Martin Luther's theological motif was justification by grace through faith alone, while John Calvin's was the glory and sovereignty of God. Their respective theological stances developed in different directions as a result. The literary motif with which we approach a work is a bias which taints how we interpret it.

The literary motif that most Western Christians bring to the text is the primacy of the millennium and its role in understanding the events of the rest of the book (Revelation 20:1-6). Even though the millennium is only mentioned in six verses of the entire book, it has become the organizing principle for most Western Christian interpretations of the text (and for Western Christian eschatology in general). I believe the first step to minimizing the impact of our biases when interpreting Revelation is to lay aside our literary motifs and even our insistence that the book describes the "end of the world."

Another factor that introduces bias in our interpretation is language. The book of Revelation was originally written in Koine Greek in the first-century. Many cultural references and linguistic connections are lost on modern readers. But even more simple than the language of the book itself is the language we use to describe it. We call it the book of Revelation, a translation of the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (apocalypsis), literally meaning "uncovering" (or "revealing," hence "revelation"). This carried the linguistic connotation of uncovering a bride's veil (prior to marital sexual union) and was also a euphemism for disclosing hidden things. It is no coincidence that this word was used and that Revelation describes the marriage banquet of the Groom (Christ) and his Bride (the Church). Today we generally associate the words "Revelation" and "apocalypse" with the "end of the world" rather than with the uncovering of something once concealed. These linguistic associations themselves can bias our approach to the text.

Two additional biases that will color our perception of the book of Revelation include our understanding of God's covenantal relationship with his people throughout history and what that looks like today - specifically concerning Israel. The bible contains a grand narrative of which Revelation shows the potential climax. How we understand the narrative prior to approaching Revelation will taint how we interpret it. Views such as two-covenant theology or dispensationalism will affect our interpretation. Whether we are Christian Zionists or not will also significantly impact our approach to biblical prophecies concerning both Israel and the Church. These biases must be acknowledged on both sides of the fence - Revelation teaches neither. We bring these biases to the text.

Genre, Authorship, & Audience

The book of Revelation belongs to a genre known as apocalyptic literature, but I will refer to it as prophetic-apocalyptic literature since this book also appears to predict future events. It is reported to have been written by the apostle John. Thus it is important to be familiar with St. John's writing style and with other works of prophetic and apocalyptic literature when interpreting Revelation. Understanding how St. John uses various words and phrases in his other works can shed light on how he is using them in Revelation. Being familiar with apocalyptic literature which likely influenced St. John is also helpful when interpreting his book. Thankfully, we have other such examples throughout the biblical text with which St. John would have undoubtedly been familiar. Apocalyptic literature was a familiar genre to many first-century Jews; readers would have some idea of how it should be interpreted. We also need to keep in mind that the book of Revelation was written to seven specific churches in Asia Minor. We must also seek to understand these original hearers.

Gematria

Gematria was familiar to most first-century Jews. It is a system for assigning a numerical value to words or phrases. When dealing with apocalyptic literature, numbers hold a symbolic meaning. We can see this principle in play in several Old Testament writings such as Jeremiah, who predicted that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jeremiah 29:10). The prophet Daniel lived during this captivity and came to the realization that this 70-year period was almost complete (Daniel 9:2). But there's one small problem: scholars have repeatedly demonstrated that it couldn't have been exactly 70 years that passed between Jeremiah's prophecy and Daniel's realization of its fulfillment. Some have tried to "make it work," but even ardent literalists such as Dr. John F. Walvoord have acknowledged that it doesn't quite work out to exactly 70 years (regardless of inclusive or exclusive counting schemas or whether or not you use a lunar or solar calendar). Even still, Daniel and the Jews saw this as the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy. The number 70 indicated the completion of God's punishment of Israel and this symbolic meaning trumped its empirical value. We can even see this in the New Testament where Matthew ordered his genealogical accounts around the number 14 (cf. Matthew 1:17; he excludes some relatives in order to fit this pattern). The principle here is that we shouldn't try to impose our scientific precision on numbers that we encounter in biblical prophecy and apocalyptic literature.

Historical Events Themselves Can Be Prophetic

One such case is the child prophesied about by Isaiah who would be born of a young woman and called "Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14). The fulfillment of this passage occurred in Isaiah 8:3. The child's name was "Maher-shalal-hash-baz." Christians later applied this prophecy to Jesus, however (Matthew 1:22-23). Early Christian fathers made all sorts of allegorical connections between Old Testament historical events and New Covenant practices. The book of Hebrews also makes many such allusions. Some also refer to this as an example of "double fulfillment."

Apocalyptic Visions Can Have Multiple Meanings

One need look no further than the book of Revelation itself for an example of this:

And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.... This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while (Revelation 17:3, 9-10, ESV).

The seven heads are both mountains (or hills) and kings. It carries both meanings. The same may be true of entire cycles of events as well.

The opposite can also be true (multiple visions can have the same meaning). Joseph has two prophetic dreams but they describe the same event (that his brothers will one day bow before him) in varying details (Genesis 37:5-11). The same occurs when Joseph is interpreting the Pharaoah's multiple dreams (Genesis 41). Joseph explains that "The dreams of Pharaoh are one," and goes so far as to say that the duplication of the message with different dreams has significance: "And the doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about" (Genesis 41:25, 32, ESV).

Heavenly Disturbances Are Symbolic

The prophet Isaiah predicted the following:

Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger (Isaiah 13:9-13, ESV).

Was he talking about the end of the world? Nope. This prophecy was fulfilled when the Medes destroyed Babylon in 539 B.C. How can I be so sure? I only need to look a few verses ahead:

Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold. Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; their eyes will not pity children. And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pomp of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them (Isaiah 13:17-19, ESV).

This happens repeatedly in prophetic literature. Additional examples include Isaiah 34:4-10 which says that "All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll...." This prophecy was fulfilled by the destruction of Edom in the 6th century B.C. (and yet we still have stars in the sky). Ezekiel does this when prophesying the downfall of the Egyptian Pharaoh (32:7-8). Nahum says that "The mountains quake before him [and] the hills melt" when pronouncing judgment on Ninevah. (Nahum 1:5). St. Peter preaches the fulfillment of Joel 2 on the day of Pentecost, specifically citing the part about the sun being turned to darkness and the moon to blood (Joel 2:30-31; Acts 2:16-21).

Look for God in the Clouds

One of the most important symbols that shows up in the prophecies of Jesus himself as well as in the writings of St. John in the book of Revelation is clouds. Sometimes the clouds are purely symbolic, often of God's divine judgment, such as in Psalm 104:3 ("he makes the clouds his chariot"). Isaiah 19:1 prophesies, "Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them" (Isaiah 19:1, ESV). This was fulfilled when Assyria defeated Egypt (Isaiah 20:1-6). Ezekiel uses similar imagery in his prophecy against Egypt (Ezekiel 30:3).

But they aren't always symbolic. The LORD descended to his people in the cloud in Exodus 34:5. He appeared in the cloud upon the mercy seat in Leviticus 16:2. A cloud physically represented God's glory when it filled Solomon's temple (1 Kings 8:10-11). A cloud overshadowed Jesus, Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13). Finally, Jesus goes up to heaven in a cloud in his Ascension (Acts 1:9). Most importantly we are told that he will return in the same way.

I won't say anymore in this section lest I sway the reader with my own interpretive biases.

Circular Time

Chronology is usually nonlinear in apocalyptic literature (especially in dreams and visions). Sometimes the order is designed to emphasize something. This can be seen in the presentation of many prophecies in the Old Testament, which sometimes are out of chronological order. For instance, in Isaiah 2 we first see the blessings of God's kingdom and global peace. But then immediately after we see that judgment is coming upon Israel before this can take place. Chronologically the peace must come after the judgment, but it is not always presented in chronological order.

The Worship Connection

The connection of Revelation to the historic worship practices of Jews and early Christians is largely lost on Protestant Christians. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians have retained many of these views, some going so far as to assert that Revelation is unintelligible apart from the liturgy of the Church (indeed some believe that Revelation's primary purpose was to prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple - representing the old system of worship - and to show the heavenly pattern of worship that the Church should mimic in order to worship in spirit and in truth). I highly recommend The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth by Scott Hahn for a concise presentation of this perspective on the book of Revelation (it is from a Roman Catholic viewpoint but I believe it is an enlightening perspective for all Christians). Even a cursory glance at the book of Revelation shows a pattern of heavenly worship that would have appeared familiar to first-century Jews - with some important and prophetic changes. Present in the book of Revelation is an altar, priests, vestments, lamp stands (Menorahs), incense, the scriptures (book or scroll), and praise and worship. The book of Hebrews also elaborates on this in depth.

Jesus is the Eschaton

Eschatology is a just fancy word referring to the study of the "last things." The word for "last" in Greek that forms the root of this word is the same word Jesus applies to himself in Revelation: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last [(ὁ ἔσχατος)], the beginning and the end" (Revelation 22:13, ESV, emphasis mine). He is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). Understanding Jesus is essential to understanding Revelation. Jesus is the one who reveals. He is the Lamb who was slain and who alone is worthy to open the seals (Revelation 5:5-6).

In conclusion, I feel that even these principles are incomplete as it is my opinion that this one book cannot effectively be approached in a vacuum apart from the revelation of God throughout the rest of the bible and Church history. But I offer them anyways. The book of Revelation is indeed revealing. It will either reveal to us whatever the apostle John (and God) wished to communicate or it will reveal our biases, prejudices, and neurotic anxieties.

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There's two important things about interpreting the bible:

  1. You must be consistent, and not use a different method for different books of the Bible. (You can't interpret an entire book using one hermeneutic, and another book using an entirely different one. You must find a hermeneutic that you can apply consistently)

  2. Let the Bible interpret the Bible. Almost everything symbolic about the Bible is explained elsewhere in the Bible (or the symbolic usage is a reference to an earlier or later situation also contained within the Bible). Look for the first usage that occurs in the Bible, and see if there is a clear explanation there.

For a consistent hermeneutic, I use the popular "literal common sense" method. Everything is to be taken literally unless common sense dictates otherwise. Example: "lamb slain from the foundation of the earth" is Jesus, not a dead lamb.

The book of Revelation, despite its reputation, only really has about 13 or 14 real symbolic things in it (some of which occur multiple times), and most of those symbolic entities are explained within the book itself, and the rest are within other parts of the Bible with a reasonable amount of certainty.

Now there are many things that, with a literal interpretation, we're left stumped, thinking, "How in the world will that happen?", or "What will this actually look like?"

Example: Sky rolling back like a scroll

Things like the number 666 is already explained (it's the number of the beast and the number of man) but the details behind why it is the number of the beast is what requires wisdom (though there's been some interesting insight into that in the past several years, we still aren't certain about it).

Try reading the book of Revelation literally, and see where that process leads you.

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so far yours is my favorite answer but i'd like a bit of objective evidence to support it. –  swasheck Jan 7 '13 at 22:55
    
Which part would you like more objective evidence for? Being consistent in interpretation, or letting the Bible interpret the Bible? I can't provide "evidence" for the need for consistency, but the hermeneutic I mentioned that I personally use is one that is fairly well known and encouraged by several large and well-known ministries (YWAM and IHOP-KC, for example). As for letting the Bible interpret the Bible, the Bible itself does this: Jesus says He fulfills the Law and the Prophets, and constantly quotes Psalms and the Prophets. Paul also quotes the Old Testament in his letters. –  Jamin Grey Jan 11 '13 at 2:04

Just a quick thought to add to the discussion: "literal" interpretation should include the concept of "literary", i.e. recognizing and respecting the genre a book is written in. Revelation is pretty widely recognized as an example of "apocalyptic" literature and should be read as such if we are to be faithfully submitting to the intended meaning.

This means in-depth study should include a study of the apocalyptic genre itself - Daniel is a key book to have at hand when reading Revelation, for example.

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I would say that everything is to be taken symbolically like a dream. However those symbols all represent literal truths, things, or events. In some cases the literal objects represented by the symbols is directly explained in the text, and other things are kept hidden for us to discern. This may seem overly simplistic, but this is the rule I use for trying to understand Revelation. It is the same rule used to understand any fantastic vision of prophecy used in the Old Testament such as in Daniel or Ezekiel, or even in the parables of our Lord.

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I agree with all the comments.

Since the Revelation is so diverse with images, the meaning may seem impossible to discern. As for rules of interpretation, the hermeneutic here has to be plain, or normal, so as to minimize confusion. For example, the graph below is my suggested hermenutical approach to understanding the False Prophet, who is described in Rev 13:11-18. That is, the graph helps to understand the False Prophet through a plain and normal understanding of certain Old Testament prophecies relating to the "Prophet" and (incidentally) to the "Christ."

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Let me close and add that we must be very careful when applying our hermeneutics to the Revelation: the sword here cuts both ways. For those who exaggerate the Revelation, there is the discipline of suffering the plagues as described in the Book (Rev 22:18), but for those who minimize the prophecies, or who discount their meanings and significance, the discipline is the permanent removal of access and privilege to the Tree of Life and from "the Holy City" in eternity (Rev 22:19).

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Do you base your conclusion that the two witnesses in Revelation are Elijah and Moses solely on similarities of the miracles performed? How is the chart that you have posted here a hermeneutics in the first place? It looks to me that it is merely a representation of your own interpretation of some characters in Revelation based on some similarities found in the Old Testament. One can agree or disagree with those similarities, but how is this hermeneutics? –  brilliant Jan 8 '13 at 4:10
    
Excellent question. In Zech 4:1-14, the same imagery appears. In that context Joshua and Zerubbabel are in view: one is the religious leader & the other the civil leader, who lead and save Israel. In Revelation it is Elijah and Moses, who will proclaim the message of hope to Israel. That is, the religious and civil leader of the nation of Israel in the end times is the false prophet, whom Elijah & Moses will oppose as the true and faithful religious and civil leaders of Israel. The false prophet will point to Antichrist, whereas Moses and Elijah will point to Jesus Christ. –  Joseph Jan 9 '13 at 3:24
    
I understand your excitement about these similarities and parallels. In fact, I myself tend to stand on the side of this view. However, what I am after here is a critical and scientific approach rather than a theological one. As long as these two prophets are not explicitly named Moses and Elijah in the book of Revelation itself, we can only hold it as one of the possible theories. –  brilliant Jan 10 '13 at 0:06

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