if-You-Should

How is it even possible to approach the book of Revelation a literal hermeneutic? The presence of such bizarre symbolic language seems to preclude the possibility of reading the book literally. The presence of highly figurative language does not preclude the possibility of literal meaning. “The prophecies predict literal events, though the descriptions do not portray the events literally” (Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 369).

To take an example from modern language, a news reporter might attempt to describe a speech by the President as well done, something which exceeded all expectations, etc. To do this, he says “The president ‘hit one out of the park.’” Most Americans will understand perfectly well what the phrase means, hitting a home run is “ultimate success,” a literal event, although it is described in a metaphor, symbolic language.

Really? That’s It?

To use a simple example in Revelation, chapter 12 describes a red dragon which persecutes the child of a woman. The dragon is clearly Satan, an image which is fairly obvious from the context (and interpreted for us by John in 12:9). Is Satan really a big red dragon? Probably not, but the image suggests things about Satan which are in fact true.

The function of a metaphor highlights certain aspects about a “great red dragon” which are true about Satan, but not everything about the dragon is true of Satan.  The difficult problem for the reader is sorting out what John intended to highlight and hide when he chose that metaphor.

When Revelation refers to something with straightforward language, we ought to take the words at face value. For example, Revelation 2-3 refer to seven churches, the ought to be read as real churches rather than epochs of church history.

Literal interpretation of Revelation does not deny figures of speech in the book. When the Bible says “like a…” it is clear that a figure of speech is being employed and that we should try to understand what the author meant by that figure. In each of the following examples, there is a metaphor / word picture which is interpreted for us by the text. Revelation 1:20 refers to seven stars and seven lampstands. The plain interpretation of these verses is that the stars are the angels of the seven churches and the lampstands are the churches themselves.

There are a few examples which are more difficult to know how far to press the “literal” meaning. For example, is the temple in chapter 11 a literal temple in Jerusalem, or a “spiritual temple,” such as the Church? When chapter 16 describes a great battle in Armageddon, should we understand the location as the literal valley of Megiddo?

The problem for readers of Revelation will always be entering into the metaphorical world of John.  The more we understand that world, the better we can answer questions about how his metaphors originally functioned.

What are other potential examples of “clear” or “unclear” imagery in Revelation? Are there elements of the book we simply cannot understand at this point in history? If so, how does “all Scripture is profitable” apply to Revelation’s more difficult elements?