Troublesome Topic: Revelation Is Symbolism Not Geopolitical Predictions

Why am I so confident that Revelation should be interpreted as symbolism rather than as predictions with geopolitical fulfilments?

Thanks for asking; here are my reasons.

1. This is a vision, not a specific prophecy.

This is not like one of the instances in the Old Testament when a prophet heard a word from the Lord and then communicated to the people, and it included clear predictive details. An example would be how the Lord predicted that the people of Judah would be taken in captivity to Babylon and would be there for 70 years. The vision of Revelation sounds nothing like that because it was not intended to communicate that type of information.

2. The first chapter of Revelation sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The picture of Jesus presented in chapter 1:10-20 is obviously symbolism, it cannot be taken literally. Here are a few examples: “His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like fine bronze which is refined in a furnace… He was holding seven stars in his right hand and out of his mouth came a two-edged sword.” I never hear anyone trying to interpret that passage literally.

Having seen that the vision starts with symbolism, the readers of John’s day would have expected symbolism to be prevalent in the rest of the vision. To them it would have seemed ludicrous to switch from seeing the first part as symbolic to seeing later parts of the vision as literal. Therefore, when they saw words in other parts of this book that could be interpreted symbolically they would start there, rather than starting with a literal interpretation the way we do.

3. Lots of symbolic words.

Any book, story, vision or passage that is full of words that are often symbolic sends the signal that even those words that could go either way are probably symbolic. The Song of Solomon has the same quality. Lots of symbolic words means that you should assume that most, if not all of it, is symbolic.

4. The verb tenses are all over the place, not consistent at all.

If this were intended to be interpreted literally, the verbs should agree with each other so that the message is clear. New Testament Greek was fairly strong on the agreement of verbs, while Old Testament Hebrew was quite fluid. But what we see in Revelation (which was written in Greek) is a total lack of consistency in the tenses of the verbs. A number of passages may start out, for example, in the present, change to the past, then to the present, then back to the past again. These verbs bounce around so much it makes you think you are watching a game of ping pong! This lack of consistency in the timing of the verbs fits perfectly with symbolism but does not fit at all if the readers were intended to interpret it literally.

5. Much of what is in Revelation only makes sense if it is seen as symbolism.

A geopolitical interpretation causes confusion and frustration, while a symbolic interpretation brings beauty and power.

How do we know what was imagery and what was not? How can we know where to draw the line between the two?

The answer is to familiarize ourselves more and more with Scripture and with ancient cultures. As we keep our eyes open for the use of symbolism in the Bible, we can begin to see patterns, we can begin to understand their thinking process a little better. The use of a word in one place can inform our understanding of its use in other places. Most important of all is to keep in mind my second rule of interpretation—seek first the most obvious meaning for the original audience.

We have usually been too quick to ask the question, “What does this mean to me?” rather than starting with the question, “What did this mean to them?”

The next lesson is: The Power of Images