When the book of Revelation is unpacked, it seems that there can be a certain haphazardness in interpreting the symbols it contains. Are there any principles that can serve as interpretative guideposts along the way?
Revelation is written in apocalyptic style and is therefore symbolic by nature. However, there are various techniques used in apocalyptic writing, each with its own ‘saturation level’ of symbolism.
Two of these techniques are often referred to by scholars as ‘symbolic’ and ‘mythic realistic’ writing. I would add a third: realistic.
Here is an example of a highly symbolic scene:
Rev. 13:1 – 2 The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.
This passage leads to the following sorts of questions:
What (or whom) does the dragon represent?
In this case, the answer is found directly from the text in the previous chapter:
Rev. 12:9a The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient snake called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. (Emphasis added)
Is the sea significant? What does it represent, if anything?
Chapter 13’s scene forms part of a series of visions contained in the so-called ‘little scroll’ which John is given:
Rev. 10:10 – 11 I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it... Then I was told, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.’
The vision of the prostitute sitting near many waters is in the same little scroll, and concerning these waters, the angel speaking to John says:
Rev. 17:15b ‘The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages…’
So it would not be unreasonable to say that the sea (or waters) where the dragon stood in chapter 13 represents many nations, as does therefore the Danielesque ‘multi-beast’ which comes out of the sea. Likewise, it would not be unreasonable to see the 7-horned beast of chapter 13 as being synonymous with the 7-horned beast of chapter 17, given the proximity of the two visions.
What are the main ideas being communicated by this symbolic vision?
The answer is found at the end of the first part of the vision:
Rev 13:9 – 10 Whoever has ears, let them hear. ‘If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity they will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword they will be killed.’ This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.
‘Mythic realistic’ writing, on the other hand, looks more like this:
Rev. 4: 2 – 3 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.
Further on in the chapter, we see that the person on the throne is God:
Rev. 4:10b-11a They lay their crowns before the throne and say: ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,… (Emphasis added)
We can think of mythic realistic descriptions as souped-up versions of the real thing (although ‘souped-down’ might be more to the point when describing God). So whilst there is no sea, dragon and prostitute per se, there really is a heavenly realm, and it really is where God the Creator and Redeemer dwell. There are angels serving God, and those who have died for the sake of the gospel are in their presence.
These two writing techniques are not always neatly compartmentalised. For example, in the relatively realistic heavenly scene of Rev. 4 - 5 we see God on the throne but we also encounter the Lion of Judah who is then described as a slain lamb with 7 horns and 7 eyes, so we need to stay flexible in terms of assigning one or the other type of metaphor to a particular passage.
As far as I can tell, when humans are involved in the narrative; when the human impact of God's wrath is being described, there is little or no ‘decoding’ required: it is written in a realistic manner. For example:
Rev. 6:15 – 17 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?’
It does not seem necessary to ask questions like:
What does hiding in caves symbolise?
What is the meaning of calling to the rocks to fall on the human beings that are hiding?
Or even: How is this passage using elements of mythic realism to add to the drama?
The whole point of the judgements in Revelation is that “the great day of [God’s] wrath has come” (Rev. 6:17). We know from passages like 2 Peter 3 that this day will result in global catastrophe and that the chief mode of destruction will be searing heat, for example:
2 Peter 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
We know from Revelation itself that this prophecy (both the main book and the little scroll) concerns “many peoples, nations, languages and kings” (Rev. 10:11b). In this quoted verse, John is told that he “must prophesy again” (Rev. 10:11a, emphasis added) about these many nations, indicating that the entire book is really about the whole world – or, at the very least, the known world of the day.
This question is almost certain to be closed (and deserves to be) but before it is let me offer a few quick comments:
The opening verses set the scene for interpreting Revelation:
Rev 1:1 (BLB) - The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants what things it behooves to take place in quickness. And He signified it through having sent His angel to His servant, John,
Then there is the long list of symbolic scenes and their elements such as:
- a seven headed dragon who spews water to kill a woman (Rev 12)
- a seven headed sea beast with 10 horns that is part lion, part bear and part leopard, who miraculously survives a fatal wound (Rev 13)
- a two-horned land beast that calls fire from heaven (Rev 13)
- Jesus represented by a seven-horned, wounded lamb (Rev 5)
- a woman with the moon under her feet and clothed in the sun (Rev 12)
- a great prostitute who rides the red beast and who trades in the bodies and souls of men (Rev 17 & 18)
- The red beast of Rev 17 represents the seven hills of the great city
- John eating a book that tastes like honey but turns his stomach sour (Rev 11)
- the prostitute sits on waters representing people (Rev 17)
- Jesus with seven stars in His hand walking among seven lamp-stands and sword coming from His mouth and legs like bronze (Rev 1)
... and so forth. These are clearly highly symbolic and should not, must not, be taken literally but treated metaphorically.
However, the messages to the seven churches have some clearly literal elements but this should be the subject of a series of separate questions.
The letters to the churches probably aren't symbolic. The rest might be.
The opening of Revelations contains letters to seven churches from Jesus Christ, transcribed by the author of the text. While the rest of the book might or might not be symbolic, those sections of the text almost definitely aren't. They're just literal letters admonishing and/or praising certain early Christian churches located in what is now Turkey.
If it can't be interpreted literally, interpret it symbolically. John clearly stated that the purpose of the book was to show to the servants of Jesus Christ what would take place in the future. Rev. 1:1-2 If something is going to happen, that sounds pretty literal, and I want to try to figure it out.
There are 8 blessings mentioned in the book of Revelation so it really pays to read it and understand it. I recently talked about the significance of 8 here:
So even if the question gets closed, I'm voting it up because someone may be blessed by receiving the blessings of Revelation.
The first two blessings are found in 1:3.
3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
Whether we take it literally or symbolically, we'd better take it seriously and put it into practice! As the 8th blessing reminds us,
Revelation 22:14: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.”
Are there any principles that can serve as interpretative guideposts along the way?
Divide into sections, studied separately.
@nick012000 pointed out that the letters to the churches are separate from the rest. But even the remainder of the text is likely the result of redaction to merge multiple texts together. John did not necessarily receive the entire revelation in one vision. Most likely he had multiple intense prophetic experiences and wrote about them in either one or multiple texts that were later combined.
Completely ignoring the chapter/verse divisions, which were devised by Martin Luther as a convenience and are not original, create your own outline of the total text in sections. Between the sections should be a clear 'break' in the text. For example, when you see, "And I John saw these things ..." that is a break. Such text may indicate a scribal redaction, used to merge originally separate texts into one, or it may be John's own words at the beginning of what was originally a separate work. Study each of these sections as if it were a separate installment in a prophetic series.
The content is related, of course, but reading it in sections will help you to read it in a form likely closer to how John originally wrote it.
Interpret in terms of Hebrew Biblical prophetic language and symbolism.
You have no chance to understand much of the symbolism in Revelation without becoming familiar with the literary jargon it uses. Some of the same symbols are used in the works of Daniel and other prophets. Beware of untrustworthy sources for interpretation of prophetic symbols! Some of the more obvious ones that emerge from studying the scriptures:
- Mountain = looming threat or problem
- Crown = authority
- Head = ruler
- Sword = division, infighting
- River = sustenance, purification
- Jordan river = death
Context will help you decide whether a term is meant literally or as a symbol. And bear in mind, it is conceivable that a scribe somewhere along the line 'translated the symbol', changing the literal language to keep the symbolic meaning the same for the Greek reader.
Another example, 'prophecy time'. Rev 11:2 says the Gentiles will tread down the Set Apart (holy) city for 42 months. 11:3 says the two witnesses will prophesy 1260 days wearing sackcloth. These are equal amounts of time because each month has 30 days. This allows the Metonic cycle to be simplified somewhat; by using 3.5 year units of time, only one leap month every 6th year and another every 39th year are required. This system is also used in Daniel. This method of counting time is not exact, but it is close and appears to be the norm for Biblical prophetic counting of time.
Using the wrong cultural symbolism or calendar system to interpret the symbols or times will result in vastly different interpretation. To an American today, the eagle means liberty; but not to a Jew in that time.
Interpret according to Aramaic/Hebrew idioms of the time, not modern or Greek ones.
The oldest surviving manuscripts of Revelation are in Greek, but that by no means proves that John wrote in Greek. Yeshua (Jesus) and all the Shlichim (Apostles) spoke Aramaic natively. Especially for such an abstract and prophetic work as Revelation, it is important to treat the text as having been translated from Aramaic into Greek and then from Greek into English. Even if John wrote originally in Greek, which is not certain, that means only that he was the original translator from Aramaic into Greek, in much the same way that a non-native English speaker would translate their thoughts from their native language into English to write.
For example, when you read, "Eat this book," you should not imagine a codex book but a scroll. And you should be aware of the Aramaic idiom, when you eat something, you make it a part of you. Now you can properly consider what it means for the book to be sweet on the tongue and bitter in the belly.
Another example, when "trumpets" are sounded, is that to announce the entrance of royalty, as in Europe, or a march to war? Or are shofars blown to announce the new moon or Yom Teruah, or to summon war-fighters to the camp, as commanded in Torah?
Revelation is to be interpreted literally
And where symbols are mentioned, interpretation is given
e.g. The mystery woman is a city. Rev 17:18
When imagery of the spirit realm is described, these are not symbols but actual appearances.
These Spiritual entities are Invisible to the physical realm, but their influences affect the physical realm
King Saul was influenced to murder. 1 Samuel 19:9 Judas was influenced to betray John 13:27
These entities were not observed in the physical realm but their influence was devastating.
Principles What principles are there to serve as interpretive guides?
1) The first Principle to determine how to interpret the Book of Revelation is to determine which GENRE of literature it is. This falls into the Apocalypse genre. It is not a direct Prophetic book ala Old Testament prophecy, so its method of interpreting is different.
2)The second guiding Principle would be an admonition to read other Jewish Apocalypes to see how they incorporated imagery to portray the messages relevant to their cultural and spiritual situation. Seeing their style would be most enlightening.
3)Thirdly, Discover the purpose and motive for the writing of this Johannine Apocalypse. What political, social, and religious milieu existed at the time of writing? Was their religious persecution, expansive church growth, a need for hope or correction in theology, etc.?
4)Check out the origins of the various interpretations of Revelation. Knowing the circumstances of the authors of the interpretations can be very revealing...as well as Who they are. Sometimes church dynamics (intrigue) skew interpretations. Often, "times that are out of joint" influence interpretations. E.g. End-time expectations caused by alleged "signs" have undue influence, quite often.
5)Since Revelation draws heavily from Old Testament imagery and passages of scripture, a good guide is to look up and read those O.T. scriptures in their setting. Familiarity with the Old Testament is a must.
THEN, pray like a house afire and ask the Holy Spirit for enlightenment, or direction to a well-versed teacher in the Body (Or acquisition of his books) that will lead to Truth.