In my last post I tried to argue that the interpreter of Revelation must use the same literal hermeneutic used on Romans. “Literal interpretation” is often lampooned as “wooden” when employed in studies on Revelation, but it seems to me that Revelation ought to be read as any other book of the New Testament. If literal interpretation is defined properly (authorial intent) and the interpreter has a sense for the use of metaphors, then Revelation makes much more sense.
The problem in that paragraph is the “sense for the use of metaphor.” A metaphor is a bit of symbolic language that intends to communicate something. For example, if one of my students described my views on Revelation as “way out in left field,” he would not literally mean I was standing out in a baseball field lecturing. That metaphor means that I was off-base (another baseball metaphor!) Perhaps another student would disagree, thinking that I had “hit the ball out of the park.” Again, the meaning is that I did well and convinced him. In both cases, I need to know about baseball and how these metaphors function in American culture. If I were in Africa and someone said I was “out in left field,” perhaps the non-American would misunderstand what the point was and think I was standing over in the corn field.
This is what makes reading Revelation difficult. We are 2000 years away from the world of the metaphor, not to mention several cultures beyond the Greco-Roman world of the first century. In order to understand a metaphor, we need to read it as a listener in the last first century might have. This implies a knowledge of the Greco-Roman world since Revelation was originally written to churches in Asia Minor. More importantly, the readers were Jewish Christians who had knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. There are two competing metaphor sets for any given metaphor in the book of Revelation – contemporary culture and the Hebrew Bible.
I’ll try one example here, the first “Horseman of the Apocalypse.” Revelation 6:1-2 describes a rider on a white horse. The color white is often associated with victory. Roman emperors, for example, rode in white when they celebrated victory. But the color is often associated with righteousness, especially in the book of Revelation. For example, white robes are promised in the letters to the seven churches and the martyrs in chapter 6, even the martyrs in chapter 5 might be said to be “victorious” because they have overcome.
There are two white horses in Revelation, this one and another 19:10-16. In chapter 19 the horse and rider is clearly Jesus coming in victory to establish his kingdom. If a person living in the first century Roman world heard this metaphor in either case they would think of victory and conquest. Based the fact that this is a white horse, can we say that the white horse and rider is a positive image (Jesus, the gospel going into the world, etc.), or is it negative, the “antichrist” who goes out “bent on destruction”?
In my view, the rider on the white horse is a parody of Christ in 19:10-16, he is a “false messiah,” he is “anti-Christ.” The rider is the Anti-Christ, going out “bent on conquest” from the beginning of the tribulation. Several contrasts with the white rider in chapter 19 : the name of the rider is “Faithful and True,” here the rider is given the power to judge and make war. The crowns are different, the weapons are different.