Metaphor or Symbol: how to interpret the book of Revelation
I'm up well past my bedtime thinking about the difference between symbol and metaphor and how that should impact the interpretation of Revelation.
In my current view of things, Revelation is not mostly metaphorical, but it is entirely symbolical.
Although they are regularly used interchangeably, metaphor and symbol are actually two distinct categories. A metaphor is a type of speech in which something from one category (the referent) is explained by being implicitly compared with something from another category (the image). A symbol, on the other hand, is something that is representative or emblematic of something else. Any object, action or expression that evokes a world of meaning beyond its initial subject is “symbolic”. In order to avoid confusion, we must recognize two relevant distinctions between metaphor and symbol.
First, unlike metaphors, symbols are not strictly rhetorical. A symbol can be an object, and action, or an expression. A nation’s flag is a symbolic object; it represents the nation itself. Burning a nation’s flag is a symbolic action; it represents the downfall of the nation. In the first century AD, the temple in Jerusalem was an object that carried all kinds of symbolic meaning for the nation of Israel. It spoke in particular of God’s covenant with Israel and his desire to dwell with them. Thus, when Jesus turned over the moneychanger’s tables inside the temple, he was performing a symbolic action that spoke of the nation’s downfall. Metaphors, on the other hand, are a strictly verbal affair: they imply a world of meaning specifically by describing something through the non-literal use of something else as a word-picture.
Which brings us to the second distinction. While the vehicle of a metaphor is always inherently non-literal, to say that something is symbolic does not necessarily mean that it is thereby non-literal. Rather, it simply means that it is representative or emblematic of something else. Many commentators appeal to the highly symbolic nature of the book of Revelation as a reason for interpreting the “seven kings” of 17:10 as a non-literal number of Roman Emperors, but this is unsustainable in light of the specific qualifiers which John places on the sixth and seventh kings. Similarly, John addresses the book of Revelation to seven churches as symbolic representatives of the whole community of Christ worldwide, but that doesn’t change the fact that these were seven literal congregations located in modern-day Turkey.
Now, with the above definitions in mind, we must note the particular character of Revelation’s symbols as visionary symbols. Revelation is not primarily metaphorical because it is not a purely rhetorical work, but first and foremost a revelatory experience in which John was a participant. The whole book is symbolic in the sense that it was “signified” to John in a vision, as the introduction says in 1:1. It’s not a direct transcription of history written in advance; it’s the account of a dramatic presentation which was put on display for John in heaven. Therefore all of the images in the book must first be understood with this visionary mediation in mind, which means that the common default to a “literal” reading (i.e. the one-for-one identification of the images with their referents) is in effect to skip a step in the interpretive process by failing to recognize what sort of literature we’re dealing with.
To read Revelation with appropriate sensitivity, we must always distinguish between what John saw (the visionary symbol) and what that refers to (the historical reality), and we must seek to discern the level of correspondence between the two. The vision of the son of man in chapter 1 has a more direct correspondence to its referent than the vision of the slain lamb in chapter 5, but they are both symbolic in the sense that they are visionary images that do not directly describe Jesus’ physical constitution. Indeed, some things are described so directly that they are more or less literal, but these types of things are generally the peripheral scaffolding of John’s visionary world, and they are still symbolic in the sense that they are visionary representations and not history written in advance.
This may seem overly complicated, but we’ve become so entrenched in oversimplifications and ambiguities that we are driven to take this one step at a time and not take anything for granted. Interpreting Revelation, or any literature from a culture other than our own, takes great care and is always a matter of delicate subtlety. The kaleidoscopic images of Revelation serve to say something meaningful about reality which could not be easily said by describing it in prose, and it's that great wealth of meaning which makes the sometimes difficult task of exegesis worth all the labor and so much more.
"Test all things; hold fast what is good." - Advice from the Apostle Paul