Revelation resources -- Revelation and symbolism

Most recent revision May 26th, 2002

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Description: This page concerns valuable discussions of the symbolism of Revelation. The issue of symbolism in Revelation is one of the most complicated problems. It is often stated that consistency cannot be expected in an apocalyptic writing. Furthermore, there is considerable disagreement as to whether several texts should be understood "literally" or "symbolic". Moreover, the proper context of the various symbols is often determined quite differently. I suggest that John uses the imagery much more consistent than is often recognised by modern scholars. (28 Dec 1998)


A prefatory note on John's use of symbolism and metaphors

First of all, there is far from consensus on the issue of how to understand John's text. Despite claims to the contrary, no interpreters succeed to interpret Revelation wholly "literally". For good reasons. As regards Rev 19:7f, no one would claim that an actual wedding is going to take place. Rather, the wedding is a metaphor for salvation. This is highly significant because it strongly suggests that the military and/or judicial terms also used about the Lamb (see, e.g., 17:14 and 19:11) should also be interpreted metaphorically. The claim that Revelation should be interpreted literally as far as possible is thus unhelpful and should not be sustained. Rather, one should carefully examine the text and its imagery and carefully note how consistent and well-woven it is. To give but one example, the use of the Greek verb nikao (often translated 'overcome' or 'conquer') in the concluding promises of the seven promises should be understood in the light of the use of this verb in 17:14 and 21:7. It is my contention, that few studies so far have dealt adequately with the John's metaphors, perhaps because it is often claimed that one should not expect consistency in apocalyptic writings. This may be, but there is some room for caution about that. If one does not expect consistency, then one may not find it either. If consistency seems to be impossible, then one should scrutinise whether the text is inconsistent or the interpretative suppositions are less than fully adequate. (July 29th, 2000)

Biblical symbolism

Ryken, L., J. C. Wilhoit, and T. Longman III. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

This dictionary is a very helpful tool for the understanding not only of Revelation, but of the whole Bible. It contains more than thousand two-column pages filled with surveys of biblical imagery, symbols, archetypes, etc. Although the entries too often ignore Revelation, they are nevertheless helpful because they describe the OT use of the imagery. Most, if not all, of the symbolism of Revelation can -- and should -- be explained on the basis of the OT. (28 Dec 1998)

The symbolism of Revelation

Collins, A. Y. "Numerical Symbolism in Jewish and Early Christian Apocalyptic Literature." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt. Edited by W. Haase, and H. Temporini, II:21: 1221-87. 1984.

(28 Dec 1998)

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing, 1999, pp. 50-69

Two of the more substantial discussions of the symbolism and imagery of Revelation. (28 Dec 1998)


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© 1996-2001 Georg S. Adamsen Opdateret d. 26.5.2002