Visionary Symbolism: A Third Way To Read Revelation

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 [to a literal interpretation]... 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. We'll return to that in a moment, but first some introduction.

Several of the most recent posts on this blog have dealt in one way or another with the question of how to rightly interpret the book of Revelation. In one post we took a critical look at the most popular approach, the literalist hermeneutic, and found it to be severely lacking. We've also explored an alternative hermeneutic in a few posts dealing with specific passages throughout the book (such as 7:1-8; 11:3-13; 16:17-21; 20:1-3; 20:4-6). It might be tempting at this point to simply swing the other way and declare everything in Revelation to be non-literal, which unfortunately is the route that many have gone, but that would be just as reactionary and insensitive to the text as literalism. I believe there is a middle road between the two most popular extremes, a third approach that comes naturally once we clarify an important matter of language.

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). If I called one of my little girls "cupcake," I would be speaking metaphorically, implicitly comparing her to one or more of the characteristics of a cupcake. Of course my daughter is not actually a cupcake, but she is fun and sweet like a cupcake, so I use that image to describe her similar characteristics. A symbol, on the other hand, is anything that is representative or emblematic of something else. Any object, action, experience, or expression that evokes a world of meaning beyond itself 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. Symbols can be objects, actions, experiences, or expressions. 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.

Now, having said all of this, we must also note the particular character of Revelation’s symbols as visionary symbols. The whole book is symbolic in the sense that it was “signified” to John in a vision, as the introduction says in 1:1. Revelation is not primarily metaphorical because it is not a purely rhetorical work, but neither is it a direct transcription of history written in advance. In contrast with both of these approaches, and in order to read Revelation with appropriate sensitivity, we must see it first and foremost as a revelatory experience in which John himself was a participant, i.e. as a vision. As such, 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. This is the middle road between the two most popular extremes.

Some images in the vision are portrayed in such a way that they more directly correspond to the things they represent in the real world. The messianic images of 1:13-16 and 19:11-16 both have a more direct correspondence to their referent than the vision of the slain lamb in chapter 5, since they are both described with the physical characteristics of a human being. But all three descriptions are symbolic in the sense that they are visionary images written up with multiple echoes of biblical and post-biblical tradition, which means that we should not assume photographic realism as much as impressionistic and kaleidoscopic depictions of reality. Jesus doesn't literally have a sword protruding from his mouth or seven stars in his right hand, and nor is it likely that he has many crowns on his head, a blood-soaked robe, or a tattoo on his thigh. John's visionary experience contains images and narrative that represent, i.e. are symbolic, of things and events that existed, exist, or will exist in the real world. But his experience and the images themselves should not be confused with the realities which they represent.

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.

In Christ,