Revelation and Metaphors


Over the last few posts I have argued that literal interpretation is best understood as reading a text in order to understand the author’s original intent. What I am really arguing for here is a consistent use of the grammatical-historical method which takes into account the use of metaphors and other symbolic language.

When reading Paul or narrative texts like the Gospels or Acts, this is a fairly straightforward process. If Luke tells us Paul went to Philippi, we do not have to work very hard trying to determine the deeper meaning of the text. But when Paul describes the church as a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” he employs a metaphor which describes the church in some ways like a temple. The reader must determine what elements of the comparison are important and which are not.

For any text, when an author uses metaphors or other figurative language, the reader must “enter into the world of the metaphor” and understand what the author intended to highlight or emphasize in the comparison. This becomes increasingly difficult for Revelation since, as I said in a previous post, the book is like a political cartoon from a culture quite different than ours and from an entirely different point in history. We may not know what some of the elements mean since we are generally ignorant of the Jewish or Greco-Roman world some 2000 years ago. This means we have to work hard to “get into the world” of the first century in order to understand what this figurative language might mean.

Please understand that the use of figurative language does not necessarily mean that the reader is free to read it anyway they want. The reader is still must determine the writer’s intent when he used that figurative language. When someone argues that “Revelation is not literal so a literal method will not work,” then they are opening the door for an allegorical interpretation, or perhaps a reader-response method of approaching the text. I am arguing that we read Revelation the same way we read Romans, even if it is hard to do.

Can these assumptions be applied to the book of Revelation? Outside of the apocalyptic portions of Daniel and the book of Revelation, most scholars agree with the methods of literal interpretation to find the meaning of a text. But, some argue, once we enter the world of Apocalyptic, these principles must be set aside. Craig Blomberg offers three ways in which reading the genres of Revelation properly will be helpful when reading Revelation (Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 368-371).

  • As a letter, we must recognize that the author intended to be understood by his readers. The text cannot mean something unintelligible to the first readers.
  • As prophecy, we must recognize that prophecy does predict literal events through symbolic language. These events, it appears take place prior to the return of Christ.
  • As apocalyptic, we ought to treat the symbols and images as such and attempt to understand them in their original context, both literary and historical contexts.

I find that the balance between the three genres helps to avoid embarrassing extremes where locust become helicopters, but also reads rather bland “good versus evil” meditations found in some commentaries which fail to give full weight to the imagery.