What does it mean to say that Revelation is symbolic?
I often come across commentaries on the book of Revelation that argue against taking a particular image literally on the grounds that all or most of the images throughout the book are symbolic. Simon J. Kistemaker’s remark on the millennium is typical: “… a literal interpretation of this number [the thousand years] in a book of symbolism and especially in this chapter filled with symbols is indeed a considerable obstacle… It is therefore more in line with the tone and tenor of Revelation to interpret the term metaphorically (Revelation, 535).” Notice in particular the way that he uses the words “symbolism” and “metaphorically” to mean basically the same thing, i.e. non-literal.
What does it mean to say that something is symbolic? Unfortunately, that term has been stretched and twisted to mean almost anything anyone wants it to mean, and for that reason its wide usage in academic writing has often functioned like a Trojan horse, carrying inside whatever assumptions the user would rather not address head on. So the question now arises whether the term has been spread too thin to be of any real use. I don’t believe so. It seems to me that its absence would create a more awkward gap in critical vocabulary than its presence, particularly in regards to the discipline of exegesis. For this reason it is not only worthwhile, but actually imperative, to make some attempt at its recovery.
Returning to our case study, Kistemaker appeals to the predominantly symbolic character of Revelation as a reason to understand the “thousand years” non-literally, and then goes on to call the term a metaphor. This is a classic non sequitur. Many commentators use all three of those words more or less synonymously when dealing with Revelation, but such looseness with language often results in muddled exegesis at crucial points throughout the book. The visionary medium of Revelation is not mostly metaphorical, but it is entirely symbolical. At first glance this may seem like splitting proverbial hairs, but it’s actually a very important distinction. Let me explain.
Although they are regularly used interchangeably, metaphor and symbol are in fact 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 anything 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”. There is some overlap between these definitions, but in order to avoid confusion we must recognize at least two major differences.
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 a great deal 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. 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. This is what Kistemaker and other commentators often forget when they appeal to the highly symbolic character of Revelation. Unlike metaphors, which are always non-literal, to say that something is symbolic does not necessarily mean that it is non-literal. Rather, it simply means that it is representative or emblematic of something else. John addresses his vision to seven churches as symbolic representatives of the whole community of Christ worldwide, but that doesn’t change the fact that these were seven historical congregations located in modern-day Turkey. Yet despite this obvious distinction, many commentators still make a superficial appeal to the highly symbolic character of Revelation as a reason for interpreting, say, the “seven kings” of 17:10 as a non-literal number of Roman Emperors, even though this is unsustainable in light of the specific qualifiers which John places on the sixth and seventh kings and at a more basic level it confuses the visionary image (seven heads) with the referent of that image (seven kings). To simply recognize the prevalence of symbolism in Revelation does not give reason for interpreting everything in a non-literal fashion.
On the other hand, though, 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 himself 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 image) and what that refers to (the historical reality), and we must seek to discern the level of correspondence between the two. In fact, the visionary symbols of Revelation have no less than four different parts: (1) what the author experienced (in this case, the visionary world unveiled to John while he was in the Spirit), (2) what the author conveyed to his audience (in this case, what the Angel told John to write down for the churches in Asia), (3) what the author’s conveyed experience refers to in the real world (in this case, a near-impending crisis which the churches are called to overcome), and (4) the implied meaning or significance which the author’s conveyed experience carries with it (in this case, the connotation of the imagery throughout the vision, e.g. the theological significance of the lamb, beast, harlot, etc).
The reason it’s so important to recognize and be conscious of these different parts throughout Revelation and other visionary literature like it is that without such an awareness the different parts are too often either collapsed onto one another or ignored entirely, which results in a half-baked exegesis of any given image. As a case study, imagine that someone asks you what Revelation 5:6-8 means. You could respond by saying (1) that it means John saw a slain lamb, (2) that John wrote to the seven churches in Asia about his vision of a slain lamb (3) that it refers to Jesus, or (4) that it speaks of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The question was phrased in a rather vague way, and all of these answers communicate in different degrees what the text of Revelation 5:6-8 means, according to different parts of a visionary symbol.
Unfortunately, however, interpreters often acknowledge only one or two parts of a visionary symbol when they speak of what any given passage “means”. For instance, literalists regularly collapse the first and fourth parts (the visionary experience and the larger meaning or significance) into the third part (what the experience refers to in the real world), and so they boldly proclaim that an image such as the binding of the dragon must speak of a literal, premillennial incarceration of Satan, as if Satan was actually a dragon and John was simply witnessing history in advance. On the other hand, though, idealists are often guilty of collapsing the third part (what the experience refers to in the real world) into the fourth part (the implied meaning or significance that the experience carries), and so they often speak of the meaning of an image as timeless and applicable to the church’s whole experience between Jesus ascension and his return, without any one specific referent. The error of both of these extremes stems from a fundamental misunderstanding as to what the visionary symbolism of Revelation actually is and how the different parts function to produce the multiple levels of meaning that we find in every image throughout the book.
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