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Richard Bauckham observes how John uses certain words and phrases either four times, seven times, or two times, along with certain multiples, such as fourteen and twenty-eight. Gregory K. Beale endorses this and says that "it is improbable that the majority are coincidental because there are so many of these patterns and because these patterns involve the Apocalypse's most crucial theological and anthropological terms.” [The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 62] And G. R. Osbome concludes that "there are four major numbers from which the vast majority of numbers derive-4,7,10,12 . . . “ [Revelation] (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 17]

For example, (and there are many examples!) the phrase "to the one who lives for ever and ever" occurs four times (Revelation 4:9,10; 10:6; 15:7), "the seven spirits" occurs four times (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), "I am the Alpha and the Omega," along with its equivalents, "I am the first and the last' and "the beginning and the end," occurs seven times (1:8, 1:17, twice in 21:6, three times in 22:13), and so on.

Academically, some of Bauckman’s hermeneutic claims appear disputed. But I could be persuaded that the fact of the word patterns is deliberate if John had a purpose, such as concealed meaning.

I do not dispute the fact of the patterns. My question is what could be John’s purpose? Does it convey hermeneutic or theological meaning, and if so what is the key to unlock it? How does that work with Revelation 1:3 “Blessed is he who reads aloud…”? Would this have been recognised by the audience of the time, or who was it for?

Background

For: R. Bauckham, The Climax Of Prophecy Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993), 30. [Online at the Internet Archive, free registration]

Against : Word Frequencies in the Book of Revelation, Steve Moyise, Andrews University Seminary Studies 2005 Vol 43 No 2 pp285-289

From Revelation 1:3 the book is meant to be heard and interpreted as a spoken piece. And yet, as a composition we know it has dozens of this peculiar literary device. Bauckman did not find evidence of this device elsewhere in OT prophets, in fact he asked for evidence (p37), and so do I.

So my question is not about interpretation of the main text of Revelation. It is supplemental, about why John extensively used this literary device of composition in a spoken piece? And what we are meant to take from it.

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2 Answers 2

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It is not just the apostle John who uses what could either be called "this literary device" or "this directive of the Holy Spirit". Throughout the entire Bible, in all of the Hebrew and the Greek scriptures, numbers are used to convey spiritual points or meanings. The repetition of those "frequency patterns" are of great interest, be they of word-phrases, or numbers.

Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel and many other authors repeat certain phrases and use numbers in a particular way. John is - in one sense - repeating this pattern of the prophets. But it is significant that this is an outstanding feature of nearly all Bible prophecies, and by collating recurring phrases and numbers, much can be learned.

However, the question is not what John wanted to convey with patterns of words and numbers, but what did the Holy Spirit want us to understand, as John was but a recorder of the angelic visions shown to him? It would be a bit like me, a stenographer, writing down every word I heard at a meeting, transcribing my notes and letting others read them. It would be pointless to ask what I wanted readers to understand by repeated phrases and numbers! I was merely the recorder of the message at the meeting!

That is why John writes that "the Spirit and the bride say..." followed by a dire warning that if any person adds to the words recorded or takes away from them, God shall add unto him the plagues written about in the book and take out his name from the book of life (Rev. 22:17-19). That is why the book of the Revelation opens up with saying an angel from Christ came to John to reveal those things to him. Also, that John was bearing record of this word of God and the testimony of Jesus, and all the things that he, John, saw. The crucial point is that those who read or hear this record of prophecy and keep those things which are written therein, shall be blessed (Rev. 1:1-3). Nobody is told they must work out a numeric or language-phrase system that will account (to their satisfaction) for what John wanted them to understand.

The "key to unlock hermeneutic or theological meaning" is to "hear what the Spirit and the Bride say" as they invite people to "Come!" and 'come' in faith. Then those who come to those scriptures in faith say, in turn, to others, to "Come!" to take of those waters of life freely. They are not to take a cupful of words here, and a mugful of numbers there! They must drink down the whole life-giving Revelation! Then, as the angel said to John, all the fellow-servants of John (angels included) who keep the sayings of that book, will worship God - Revelation 22:9.

Those who immerse themselves in word-frequency patterns and symbolic use of numbers might be at risk of not seeing the wood for the trees. So, how could they then "do" what the words require them to do, if they become fixated on esoteric conundrums about words and numbers?

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  • Thank you, Anne. Yes, from Rev 1:3 the book is meant to be heard and interpreted as a spoken piece. And yet, as a composition we know it has dozens of this peculiar literary device. It is not the presence of 'meaningful numbers' in the text, the device is within the number of times words or phrases appear - and that is composition. Bauckman did not find evidence of this elsewhere in OT prophets, in fact asked for it (p37), and I'd ask you to provide please? All that I know of is from Giblin “Pointed out by Giblin” 1991 pp203-204 Joshua 24:1-25.......
    – user59096
    Sep 30, 2023 at 15:05
  • So my question is not about spirit led interpretation of the main text. It is supplemental, about why John used this literary device of composition in a spoken piece? And what we are meant to take from it. Why is it there? BTW, Revelation is a masterpiece of literary composition and craft, whether that is John's or God's craft. The final greeting completes several loose ends of this literary device......
    – user59096
    Sep 30, 2023 at 15:20
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    @Thermion I see a link btwn Rev.6:8 and Ezek.14:21, the (1st) 4 seals in heaven broken, to cause sword, famine, dangerous beasts and pestilence to go forth. That's just 1 example. But doing a clinical search for numbers of times phrases are repeated by any 1 author may miss the point. What are we being told so that we know what to do or to expect? It's not about literary devices or analyzing composition: what is God communicating to his beleaguered people? Are we meant to count phrases or notice how God repeats thing in various ways to emphasize particular points? I don't expect a Green Tick!
    – Anne
    Oct 1, 2023 at 12:26
  • thank you. I can only say again it is not the meaning of the text that is at issue here - wondrous as that may be. But rather it concerns the composition itself. And IMHO you ask the right the right questions 'what is God communicating,'....if anything... Clever it is for sure.
    – user59096
    Oct 1, 2023 at 20:16
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The situation is not as neat and tidy as some think. Specifically, in Revelation there are:

  • seven churches (1:4, 11, 20), seven lampstands (1:12, 20, 2:1), seven stars (1:16, 20, 2:1, 3:1), seven angels to the seven churches (1:20), seven spirits of God (3:1, 4:5, 5:6* this last is debatable), seven lamps or torches (4:5), seven seals (5:1,5, 6:1), seven horns on the Lamb (5:6), seven eyes of the Lamb (5:6), seven angels with seven trumpets (8:2, 6), seven thunders (10:3, 4), seven heads on the dragon (12:3), seven crowns on the dragon (12:3), seven heads on the sea beast (13:1), seven angels with seven plagues or bowls (15:1, 6, 8, 16:1, 17:1, 21:9), seven bowls (15:7), seven heads on the beast from the abyss (17:3, 7, 9), seven mountains (17:9), seven kings (17:9, 11). That is the number "seven" occurs 54 times.
  • the number "ten" occurs nine times
  • the number 12 occurs ten times
  • the number 144000 occurs three times
  • "Altar" occurs eight times
  • "Amen" occurs 67 times
  • "Babylon" occurs six times
  • "Blessing" occurs seven times
  • "brothers" occurs five times
  • "Book" occurs 24 times
  • "Breastplate occurs three times ' "Censor" occurs twice
  • "City" occurs 27 times
  • "Dead" occurs 13 times
  • "Death" occurs 19 times
  • "Crown" (stephanos) occurs 8 times and "diadem" occurs three times
  • "Devil" occurs five times
  • "Dragon" occurs 13 times
  • "Father" occurs five times
  • "Fire" occurs 26 times
  • "Fornication" occurs seven times
  • "Lamb" occurs 29 times - 28 times it is applied to Jesus and once to the beast from the land.

... and so forth. Many have claimed a pattern to these many numbers such as:

  • three is the number of the trinity
  • four is the number of the earth
  • six is the number of man
  • seven is the number of God's perfection
  • eight is the number of Jesus
  • ten is the number of plentitude
  • twelve is the number of the kingdom
  • thirteen is the number of evil and the dragon
  • etc.

However, these patterns are not absolutely consistent and some of confusing. Fir example, is twelve twice the number of man, or three times the number of the earth, of four times the number of the trinity or all of these?

Having compiled an exhaustive list of the vocabulary of Revelation, I am not a fan of either gematria or numerology. Some patterns exist but most are strained.

What is important in Revelation is the message, not the numbers.

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  • Thank you, Dottard. Bauckham's point apparently concerns only crucial theological or anthropological terms, as set out in the table provided by Moyise. i.e excluding the explicit meaning of the text, and not meaning ordinary terms as mostly you seem to have listed, except for 'lamb' which ironically might be 28 4x7 anyway. Having stats background, I'm inclined it's unlikely to be coincidence/random. And doesn't occur elsewhere in Scripture AFAIK. But Moyise agrees with you, and I can see both sides. I'd be influenced if the device might have a purpose.....beyond being clever.
    – user59096
    Sep 30, 2023 at 22:51
  • @Thermion - actually, this sort of thing occurs in many places in the Bible with the same regular/irregular patter as Revelation. But that is another question. 1260 days and 42 months are important concepts but they do show this pattern.
    – Dottard
    Sep 30, 2023 at 23:00
  • Bauckham asked for examples (p37) that show a pattern, can you kindly provide?
    – user59096
    Sep 30, 2023 at 23:03
  • @Thermion - ask a question and I will provide.
    – Dottard
    Oct 1, 2023 at 7:29
  • Thank you, that's done.
    – user59096
    Oct 1, 2023 at 15:35

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