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.

Literally? 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.

19 thoughts on “Revelation and Metaphors

  1. This post is quite interesting to me because I just wrote a paper about symbolism in the Book of Revelation. P. Long said when reading Revelation we must, “work hard to “get into the world of the first century in order to understand what this figurative language might mean.” I think this is true, but one of the questions I had was, why doesn’t John just come out and plainly say what he was trying to say. One of the reasons the article written by Gregory Beale gave me was that, “the symbols are likely there in order to make the diligent reader of God’s word dig deeper in order to get the richer treasures” (Calvin theological Journal, April, 2006. Pg, 56). I think that John definitely wrote it for a specific purpose. Literal things are going to come from the symbolic images expressed in the book. I believe P. Long’s post and Beale’s ideas match up quite closely. P. Long mentioned that the locusts in Revelation 9 aren’t meant to be interpreted as helicopters. Instead when we work hard to get back to the meaning John had for the text, we might figure out what they actually could be symbolizing. That is why I too believe that following a good balance between the 3 genres is probably the best option. I believe that is the first step we need to take in order to capture the true intent of the letter.

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  2. I think as one reads through the book of Revelation that it is difficult to fully comprehend the metaphors that are being presented. I think many times when people read the Bible they are taking the words or metaphors and turning them into something totally different of what it actually means. I think we do need to be careful on how we interpret these kinds of things when we read scripture. I don’t think we will exactly learn every single detail about Revelation based on all of the metaphors. I think it will take time and a determined mind to really try and focus on what the author has to say to us and try to wrap our minds around what it says, at the same time not trying to interpret the text in the way we want it to be read.

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  3. Revelation, to me, is the most confusing book in the Bible. It is extremely difficult to interpret. There are so many ways in which it can be interpreted. It can be interpreted figuratively, literally, etc. There is so much obscure imagery in Revelation and I have no idea what’s literal and what is metaphor. I believe that a lot of it is metaphor. However, like P. Long said, it is difficult to understand these metaphors because they come from a time that is so different from where we live now. However, I like the idea of the three ways to read Revelation. I find it very helpful actually. We must read this book like any other book. We must read it with its original context in mind, with its original readers in mind and knowing that it is symbolic but also literal. This is a very simple way to read Revelation that I will keep in mind next time I read this book.

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  4. I agree with Sarifariy, that Revelation is a very hard book to understand and I think that perhaps, if we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we are not going to understand it fully and exhaustively, and have to be okay with that.I don’t think we can know for sure what type of prophecies are in Revelation, so it seems kind of pointless to stick to one view point. Noone will know the exact time when Christ will return and how and when everythingelse will play out.
    I was reading a commentary on Revelation by Adam Clarke and after describing the imagery and symbolism that Revelation contains, he stated that he had no idea what they meant and was not even going to try to decipher them. Many have tried to, but nobody can state anything for sure, they are all guesses.One person’s assumptions seem adequate until another one was examined. “I have read elaborate works on the subject, and each seemed right till another was examined. I am satisfied that no certain mode of interpreting the prophecies of this book has yet been found out, and I will not add another monument to the littleness or folly of the human mind by endeavouring to strike out a new course(Adam Clarke’s Commentary).
    But again,that’s not to say that we shouldn’t read it at all. It is in the Bible for a reason and contains truths that can be applicable to us (of course), especially if we dig into the context and background of the book…

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  5. This blog post by P. Long on how to read Revelation, literal or allegorical, is extremely important and relevant in how we decide to read apocalyptic literature. This blog reminded me of some lectures from Professor Pat McGillicuddy in which he outlined, when preaching and studying God’s word, we must build a bridge from their time to our time. This is in reference to how when we read the Bible we must first understand the history, context, culture, and original people the Scripture has and thus for application and to aid in understanding Scripture, we can make connections to our town.

    In this process, Professor McGillicuddy suggests what He calls, and I believe P. Long is writing on the same concept in his blog, reading Scripture normally. To read Scripture normally is to recognize all the factors of history, context, culture, and people groups to help understand if Scripture is being allegorical or literal. P. Long is correct, it takes a lot of work, especially for books such as Daniel and Revelation, to gain the knowledge of history, culture, etc. But P. Long is also correct that to do this work is the same no matter which part of Scripture we are diving into and as Christians we ought to be seeking as full a picture of Scripture as possible, this including learning the complexities of the context of books such as Revelation.

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    • “reading Scripture normally” is another way to say “literal interpretation,” but it avoids the perception someone reading Revelation literally thinks a dragon/beast thing is really going to rise from the sea in the future. To read Revelation literally is to attempt to understand what the original author meant by his rather disturbing metaphors.

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  6. Indeed, reading the book of Revelation can be difficult due to the fact that there exists a cultural barrier between the time it was written, approximately some 2000+ years ago, and our modern, American society of today’s day and age. The culture, language, society, norms, and mindsets of the men and women of this period were vastly different than our own. It is also an inherent danger with figurative language that some will fall into the trap of subjectivism, where one simply says that something can mean anything one wants it to. This is both incorrect, wrong, as well as not what God intended for us when we are reading this type of scripture and figurative literature. As to what type of method should be should to best interpret the book of Revelation, such as literal, figurative, allegorical, and so on, the answer to this is that no one method can describe the entire book. Instead, a combination of different study methods is best suited for it, as well as allowing the reader to better understand its passages. For example, when John is referring to the four living creatures, they are unlike anything known to mankind, and his only option for describing them in any comprehensible way is to compare them to something that we do in fact already know. He uses wording such as “like a lion”, “like an ox”, “like an eagle”, and so on. He must compare them to earthly things. It is most likely that whatever the four living creatures look like, they do not appear exactly as an eagle, ox, or lion does. This is simply a figurative comparison. However, for other sections of the book of revelation, there is no need to attempt to “figure out” or decipher what it is talking about. In Revelation chapter 7, it says that there will be 144,000 individuals of Israel sealed, and lists 12,000 coming from each tribe, such as Benjamin, Gad, Judah, and so on. In this case, 144,000 means just that, literally 144,000, and 12,000 literally means the number 12,000 of something. One must use the wisdom God has given us to know when to apply figurative interpretation, and when to apply literal interpretation.

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  7. There are a lot of great points that P Long makes within this blog post. When we read scripture, we have to read it for the time it was written, and bridge that gap between then and now. There are some passages that take no effort to read what they are saying, like P Long said, if Luke said that Paul went to Philippi we do not have to question or try to understand what he is saying. But the same way we read that scripture is the same way we have to read all scripture.

    An important aspect of reading scripture is to look to the context which it is written. Some questions to ask yourself while reading scripture is where was it written from, who is it written to, who is writing it, what happened historically within the context, what is the culture which it was written in? By going through these questions, we can figure out what kind of writing it is in certain passages. It does take a lot of work to do this, but it is beneficial in order to read the real meaning and get a better grasp on what is being said within the scripture. It can be hard to do this while reading Daniel and Revelation and get frustrated, since other books of the Bible are very easy to read and understand what is being said, like the gospels. It takes a lot of extra work to understand and comprehend what is being said within the chapters of Revelation and Daniel. I think another factor is to ask the Holy Spirit to come and illuminate truth to us from scripture while reading it to help us understand what is happening within the verses. I believe that without the Holy Spirit speaking to us while we read, it is useless trying to understand the passages on our own.

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  8. The bible uses many metaphors that we can interpret. But many question whether we should take interpretations literally. Metaphors are used to give us an imagery of a person, place, or thing. It allows us to get a clearer image when it is related to something we are familiar with. Revelation has a few metaphors used in the book and it can be hard to interpret because we are not as familiar with the meaning of metaphor since the book was written a long time ago. We do not know much about the culture or the language as well. We have to dig a bit deeper to understand the metaphor. We need to be careful when interpreting Revelation because we could accidentally interpret a sentence the wrong way and end up going down the wrong path when we want to apply it to our life. It would be helpful to follow some study tools to help guide you when you are interpreting a verse. The three genres can be a helpful tool to use to help prepare the mind before reading the verse.The letter, prophecy, and apocalyptic genres are main genres that are in the book of Revelation and can provide a way for us to help interpret metaphors and become familiar with the text.

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  9. It always surprises me to see people wanting to take a view that is either an exact literal interpretation of Revelation, or a heavily figurative view of the text with no real room for literal interpretation. Both of these views definitely miss out on the fact that surely John’s readers (or at that time, listeners) could understand what John wrote. They did not have a special gift for interpretation; however, they merely understood the metaphors and figurative language of the times. Surely John would not have written something that would be such a difficulty for his audience in the seven churches to decipher!

    Dr. Long is spot-on when he describes Revelation as a political cartoon that has lost its historical context, and therefore appears to have a dubious meaning. This can’t be seen as a work of art that is open to interpretation, however, as there most certainly used to be a purpose to the words that John uses, as surely as there is a purpose to the text now. Revelation most certainly can be read with a literal point of view, although the reader must be able to note metaphors and look for the original contexts of them.

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  10. yes the bible does use many many metaphors and it is clearly seen through out revelation and many other chapters of the bible. however it can be very difficult which things we are to take literally and which things we are to take metaphorically when it comes to revelation. like is there actually going to be a horse with a lion head it almost seems like reading an imaginary children book at times. but also since Gods word is true and because God is all powerful then we can look and see that yes this is very literally possible. The question does remain as stated, which things should we take metaphorically? though there are several passages in the bible that are clearly suppose to be viewed metaphorically there are several that are also unclear.

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  11. The book of Revelation is covered in metaphors and imagery that we must decipher in order to better understand what the text is trying to say. It is very easy for us to read something in any book of the Bible and come up with our own interpretation of it and make it say what we want it to say, but we need to read it as the author intended it to be read. But that is easier said than done. In order for us to understand it we need to have some knowledge of the time period, the culture, the language, etc. As P Long said in the original post, we are often ignorant of the Jewish and Greco Roman word because it took place such a long time ago. But because of this it becomes very hard to understand what the text is saying.

    In the book of Revelation specifically I see many times where there are metaphors being used and some questions we have to ask ourselves is where is this story or event taking place, who is this written to originally, what led up to this event, and who wrote it? All of these will hopefully help us better understand the text and decipher the metaphors that are used to teach us things.

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  12. I have always shied from reading revelations because when I did, I found myself lost. I believe it is so extremely important to work hard to understand the world of Greco Romans and Jews, in order to start to comprehend what revelations is saying. I like when you said that we need to “find that the balance between the three genres helps to avoid embarrassing extremes” (P Long). We need to look at the time period, language, culture, and context to understand what is literal, symbolism and what is metaphor. No matter if we are reading revelations or any other book, we must be careful to understand it fully. We must not be ignorant of the Jewish and Greco Roman world.

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  13. Reading the book of Revelation was very difficult for me, I got lost very easily and I did not want to think about the end times. Yet, how others could read it so easily. Reading P. Long’s post has made a better understanding of how to come about reading revelation. We should see it like any book of the Bible and be able to understand it from the authors point of view, the date and time it was written in. All that plays apart with the culture and how we can better understand the metaphors and symbolism’s that the author is trying to portray.

    I think that it is important to read Revelation, even if it is a “scary” or not easy to read book. It has a great representation of the love that Christ has for us and what will be one day. It is easy to be caught up in the busyness of life and forget the God we serve. I think that Revelation can bring us back to square one, as to why we are here. Yes, it is easy to get lost in, but like most important books or history it play a key role in what we believe and of what is to come. We have to come to a better understanding that we are not all knowing, reading a book to help us understand is good.

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  14. Reading through revelation we know that it is not an easy read but in fact it is difficult to understand everything in this book. We know that it talks about the second coming and what it might all entail but in that we also notice that there is a gap between what was written and how we understand it now. I think that the three points in the article here were a good description of how we can break down revelation. One by a letter, we then know how to understand what is being said and comprehend the writings to our life and salvation. Second, we can view it as a prophecy in which we can look for the signs of something that is to come or has come already. And finally, apocalyptic we can visuals and help us better understand something that was being written out specifically describing what was happening. I think that through these 3 ways we can better understand the book of revelation.

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  15. Revelation is a mysterious texts in many ways. Its genre is hard to nail down, its meaning even more so. There is a temptation when reading such a difficult text, to try to solve its mysteries and “solve” it. But, I feel that some parts of Revelation will remain mysterious and misunderstood until the end of things. I don’t think we will fully understand John’s metaphors and analogies until what he has described has come to pass. Perhaps John himself struggled to describe what it is that he experienced. Humans are imperfect and have an imperfect understanding. Revelation 1:3 makes it clear that Revelation’s message is important and meant to be heard, but our understanding of that message is limited. We are separated by thousands of years from its original writing, and their are language barriers in our understanding as well. I feel that Revelation is a letter, a prophecy, and apocalyptic literature all wrapped into one text. Those genres can be hard to understand on their own, and blending them no doubt just makes interpretation even more difficult. Mankind, will probably not have a clear understanding of this text until it has become history.

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  16. Revelation and metaphors
    I enjoyed reading this blog. I like viewing the book through a few lenses. I think this is important when reading the bible. In this blog post, you had mentioned a few ways to approach the book. I Especially liked this blog because of our short paper number four. We had to pick a chapter in revelation and look at the metaphors, then talk about the three views in which the book can be interpreted. You have Preterist, who believes that the events in revelation had happened in the first century, then idealists who think the book is completely ideas and metaphors. Then there is the futurist, they believe the book will come to fruition at the end of history.
    When it comes to reading the bible, more specifically reading revelations, I like what P.Long said that this is a letter, so we are to read it as if we intercepted this letter. Now the events apply to us. But this is also apocalyptic and prophecy from the first century, so there are some literary devices that we may not be familiar with.
    I do have a question though when reading revelations and looking at all the metaphors, does that mean this book could be seen through an idealist view? Or do I have the wrong idea of idealism? That is beside the point. I think it’s important to not get so black and white when reading literature like this. So well done!

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