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.

6 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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