In this post and the next I want to provide proof for these two points, especially since they lead us away from the way the book has been most popularly understood for the past century or so.
In this post we will look at proof for the first point.
1. Proof For The Symbolic Nature Of The Book.
a. Proof Of Symbolism In General.
There are several proofs we offer here.
(1) As we have already seen, Revelation 1:1 tells us that God “signified” (or symbolized) the truth in the book. We need not spend more time on this verse. Simply-put, because of what we are told here, we should expect a good deal of symbolism.
(2) In addition to being a prophetic letter, the genre that comprises the book is what scholars call apocalyptic literature. There are other examples in Scripture (in Isaiah, Daniel, and Zechariah, especially) and also in books outside of Scripture between the testaments and in the first century A.D. These works, with a great amount of symbolism, tend to “pull back the curtains” on what is happening in history to reveal other-worldly visions of what is taking place as God defeats his enemies, takes care of his people, and applies the work of salvation and the work of judgment throughout history and into the age to come. None of these works are meant to give to us merely chronological depictions of what takes place either in history, at the end of history, or in the age-to-come.
(3) “The teaching of Balaam” is used in 2:14 to refer to false teaching that threatens to lead astray the church in Pergamum, most likely for material gain. It is highly doubtful that false teachers were literally going back to the literal teaching of the diviner whose story is told in Numbers 22-24, but that the errors of the false teachers in Pergamum resembled the errors of Balaam.
(4) Likewise, in 2:20f. the label “Jezebel” for a false teacher in Thyatira most likely is not intended to suggest her name literally was Jezebel, but that she was very much like the infamous and idolatrous Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, whose story is told in 1 Kings 16-2 Kings 9.
(5) The “soiled garments” in Sardis (3:4), in the immediate context and the far context of Revelation, would speak of unrighteous actions that are unfaithful to and disobedient to God. The “white garments” of 3:5 would be just the opposite. Both speak of important truths, but both are symbolic, not literal references.
(6) In 3:15-16 the church in Laodicea is told its testimony and mission have been so compromised, they are good for nothing. The way this is communicated is by referring to two water sources in the area that were well known. There was cold water that came by aqueduct that was useful for drinking and there were also hot springs utilized for medicinal purposes. That they were neither hot nor cold created a picture, then, of them being useless for service to God in the same way the cold water mixed with the hot would be no good—either for drinking or medicinal purposes. It would be good for nothing.
(7) The vision of the locusts in 9:3ff., which in context, are clearly demons, appear to be built upon both the book of Joel and the Exodus plagues before that in the Old Testament. The intent does not appear to be that we can expect such beings in the future (that is not how apocalyptic works). Nor is it intended to be understood in light of some kind of modern or future helicopter or the like. They are symbolic and to be interpreted by context and their Old Testament background.
(8) In chapter 12 “woman” (referring to the people of God ), “dragon,” and “serpent” (referencing Satan) are all figurative—to be understood in light of their Old Testament background and the rest of the book of Revelation, but clearly not literal references.
(9) In chapter 20 the text speaks of chains being used on spiritual beings who are placed in a “prison” or abyss. How would such physical entities hold a spiritual being? Most likely these are symbolic reference.
(10) “Babylon” (14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:1, 2, 10, 21) and “Euphrates” (9:14; 16:12) are used figuratively and with universal implications—speaking of the kingdom (even a city at one point, like in Is. 25:3: 16:19) that opposes God. These are clearly symbolic.
(11) In Revelation 21 we are told that the wall around the new Jerusalem is 216 feet thick (and most likely intended that is also its height [v. 17]). However, the city itself is just under 1,400 miles high (v. 16). What is more, the gates on the wall are never shut (v. 25). So, when we put all these together, the most likely conclusion is that the visions convey symbolic and yet very real truths, but are not intended to be taken literally.
(12) Interestingly enough, there are many bits of evidence in in Revelation 21 that the temple pictured in the new heaven and new earth is the ultimate fulfillment of the end-times temple Ezekiel envisions in Ezekiel 40-48 and it is clearly not a physical or literal temple (see 21:22). If this is correct, not only do we see symbolism here in Revelation 21, but it also leads us to see Ezekiel 40-48 as intended symbolically.
(13) There are many other proofs for the presence of symbolism we could offer (in fact we could take them from every page of Revelation, if not most paragraphs), but the point is sufficiently made. When we say that Revelation is “highly symbolic,” this is not merely an interpretation that we must follow in order to achieve our desired understanding. No, it is taken from the text itself and from the knowledge of other literature like Revelation.
b. Proof Of The Symbolic Use Of Numbers.
Not only do we find symbolism in general, but also the symbolic use of numbers in the book, which would fit with all that we have seen about the expectation of symbolism.
(1) There are several uses of “seven” in the first chapter, a number that symbolically depicts perfection or fullness: “seven spirits (1:4)…seven stars( 1:16)…seven golden lampstands…the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (1:20).
(2) The use of “ten days” in 2:10, to speak of a time of tribulation, is most likely drawn from the book of Daniel—as one of the many times in the book of Revelation in which we see what Daniel looked forward to in the far future is now being fulfilled—and yet it is not necessarily to be taken as literally 10 days. The point seems to be that God will take care of the believers in Smyrna as he did Daniel and his friends when they were tested for ten days (Dan. 1:12, 14, 15).
(3) The Twenty-four elders of 4:4 (12 x 2), as well as the twelve patriarchal/tribal names on the New Jerusalem gates (21:12) and the twelve apostle names on the wall foundations of the new city (cf. 21:14) all depict the presence of the full people of God (Old and New Covenants [12 x 2]).
(4) As we have already seen in the previous two weeks of study, the seven spirits and seven lamps of 4:5 are symbolic—referring to the Holy Spirit, through the eyes of the Zechariah 4 vision.
(5) In 7:1-8 careful observation of the 144,000 redeemed in heaven (esp. as we look at the use of the tribes, the perfect numeration of 12,000 of each, the 12 x 12,000, and the parallelism between it and “a great multitude that no one could number” in 7:9) shows we almost certainly have a figurative or symbolic use of numbers in this text. It represents the full number of the people of God.
(6) Of course the book structure of seven seals…seven trumpets, seven histories…seven plagues/bowls…all speak of both symbolism and a very tight structure for the book.
(7) In Rev. 10:6 the clause “that there would be no more delay” is parallel to the clause, “it would be for a time, times, and half a time” (in its Old Testament source, Daniel 12:7). Elsewhere (Rev. 12:6, 14) it appears that 1,260 days (3.5 years with a 360 day year) is parallel to “a time, times, and half a time.” This coupled with the many times in Revelation when it appears that Revelation unfolds the fulfillment of Daniel’s end-times prophesies (including his seventy weeks of 9:24-27, that include the last week divided into two halves of 3.5 years)—and the strong indications that Revelation deals with events of this current inter-advent age—all suggests that the 3.5 years (and the implied seven years if we consider its doubling in Daniel) is a symbolic use of numbers. See also in Rev. 11:3, 9, 11, where 1,260 days (v. 3) is used in conjunction with 3.5 days (vv. 9, 11), in the context of the witness of God in this inter-advent age proclaiming God’s word and also being killed, but also be raised. When all this is put together, the 3.5 years or the 7 (if doubled) are pictures of trials, tribulations, that take place throughout this present age (although they are intensified toward the end). The 3.5 years also has special significance as roughly the same period of time Antiochus Epiphanes greatly persecuted the people of God and desecrated the temple a couple centuries before the days of Jesus.
(8) In 11:9 the “three and a half days,” understood in context, is symbolic—meaning a short period of time and most likely drawing upon the parallel between the saints’ death and resurrection, and that of Jesus. It also is contrasted with the 3.5 years of v. 2—as a much shorter period.
(9) In 11:13 we find the statement, “there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed,” is clearly symbolic. The inference is that 1/10 = 7,000, which means 70,000 people = the total population. That much too low for Jerusalem or any other literal city to which this could refer. At the same time, the presence of 7 and 70 (7x10) all suggests completion or fullness. In other words, this is the city of fear-inspiring nations (cf. Is. 25:3).
(10) In 13:18 the number of the beast (666), which also equals his name, expresses this full state of being incomplete and evil. Though the dragon-beast-false prophet seek to be a counterfeit Triune God and Savior, they fall short, they are incomplete. They, working on humanity and like humanity (sinful) mark and rule their followers and their followers share in their character. These are all intended as symbolic depictions.
(11) What we see from this list is that Revelation has a strong tendency for using numbers in the same manner it does many other things—symbolically. Again, we are not reading this into the book so that we can make it say something we desire it to say. Rather, we are deriving this from the book itself, seen in accordance with its structure, in light of Old Testament background, and in some cases in accordance with clear use of symbolism in numbers in some cases. Where this will become very significant in reference to a large current debate is when we get to the “thousand years” of Revelation 20:2, 4, 5, 6. If we discover there is strong evidence in that text and its context for understanding that number symbolically and to refer to a current period of time that spans from the first to second coming of Christ (which is what we will affirm when we get there), we are not all of a sudden treating numbers in a way that runs counter to how John uses them elsewhere in Revelation.