Literal Interpretation and Metaphor

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.

4 thoughts on “Literal Interpretation and Metaphor

  1. Reading Revelations is a really hard book to read. I think that we have to be very careful when we do read it. There are some things that we know to be true and are to be read in a literal way, but then there are also some things that we know are just a metaphor. I think that there are a lot of metaphors in the book of Revelations. It is hard to say that we have to set aside Revelations as a totally different book and that we have to interpret it different. I think that every book of the Bible is equal in value. I think that it is hard to say that you have to interpret this book different and all of the rules are thrown out. I think you are right in saying that we need to know the culture of when this book was written. I think that if we are to know as much as we can about the culture and the area where the book was written, we would be able to understand Revelations a lot better and maybe even truer because we would be understand the time in which the writer was in. I do not think that we can say you have to interpret one phrase in Revelations on way and then find that same phrase in another book of the Bible and say that you have to interpret a totally different thing and make it mean a totally different thing. I do not think that God intended for the Bible to be so complicating that we can not understand the sound doctrine that is given to us.

  2. Metaphors are fun elements of language but they can get very confusing quickly. They are especially confusing when we are trying to understand metaphors that are thousands of years old, set in a context that we are far removed from. How can we interpret them? Metaphors are meant to make the reader think and associate it with something that they are already familiar with. We can try to pull together information that we know about this time in Jewish culture to figure out what they are speaking of, but it cannot be too more than a good guess. I still think that we can only make good guesses to what the author is talking about and that we are going to have to see when these events happen.

  3. Metaphors. It is difficult to understand exactly what the author intended to convey exactly after more than 1900’s years. I also wonder if the original audience had a difficult time understanding Revelation even when they knew what most all or probably all of the metaphors meant. Hopefully they understood Revelation with no problem at all, but what if they didn’t? Do you think God wrote some things in Revelation that would be intentionally hard to understand as he did in the Old Testament that now are obvious. I think even Jesus’ disciples were surprised about how literal some passages of scripture were fulfilled. In interpreting Revelation it is hard sometimes to discern what is metaphor and what may not be metaphor. I am sure after the events of Revelation are fulfilled we might even surprised how literal or how metaphorically some things were fulfilled.

  4. Metaphors can be tricky things, like Aaron said, but if you are aware of the history and social setting of the time, some of these tricky metaphors will turn out to be fairly plain statements. Like P.Long’s analogy of baseball catchphrases in American language, there are idioms present within the literature of Revelation. The problem with this is that even though a person from England may know of baseball, and the meaning of the terms “out in left field” or “home-run” in relation to the game. They may not be able to make that connection in terms of social commentary. Facts turn into myths, and myths into legends when terms and ideas travel. The greater the distance traveled, the number of cultures encountered, and the amount of time passed, will eventually yield a grander story, myth, or legend. Hence the trickiness of metaphors and the extreme caution and humility that must go into interpreting these metaphors/idioms.

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