Interpreting Revelation: Symbolic or literal? – Part 2

POST OVERVIEW. The second of a two-post series discussing whether our default approach to Revelation 4-20 should be to interpret the text literally or symbolically.

These two articles together attempt to answer one very simple question:

When interpreting the book of Revelation, should our default be to understand the book literally or symbolically?


In our previous post, we laid a foundation for interpreting the difficult section of Scripture between Revelation chapter 4 and chapter 20, but we left unanswered one of the most important questions for interpreting these texts, namely, “Do we approach these visions that John saw from a literal or a symbolic perspective?”

One of the most obvious features of these chapters is a continuous pouring forth of strange and powerful visions of angels and dragons and earthquakes and hailstones. Just speaking for me personally, I cannot imagine what a literal interpretation of these visions could possibly mean, so I have always thought that most of these were intended to be symbolic of other biblical realities. After all, Revelation is the extreme example of the genre called biblical prophecy, and in this genre, the symbolic and the figurative are common. So, while there are certainly parts of this section of Revelation that should be understood literally, the overwhelming majority of these chapters presents events and characters which only make sense if they are symbolic and figurative. In fact, the great challenge of interpreting Revelation 4-20 is determining the symbolic meanings of the many images that John records.

The following give evidence of the need for a symbolic or figurative interpretation. It is difficult to conceive of these being interpreted literally.

  • Twenty-four elders, four living creatures Rev. 4, 5
  • The Lamb in Rev. 5:6ff
  • The seals of Rev. 5, 6
  • The four horsemen of Rev. 6:1-8
  • The 144,000 of Rev. 7:4-8; 14:1-5
  • The seven angels with the seven trumpets of Rev. 8-9
  • The star from heaven in Rev. 8:10; 9:1ff
  • The abyss (bottomless pit) and the smoke Rev. 9:2-10
  • Locusts and scorpions Rev. 9:3-10
  • Twice ten thousand time ten thousand horsemen Rev. 9:16
  • Kill a third of mankind Rev. 9:15 (2.5 Billion people??)
  • Two witnesses, fire flows out of their mouths Rev. 11:5
  • The woman Rev. 12
  • Red dragon Rev. 13
  • The beast Rev. 13:1-10
  • Another beast Rev. 13:11-17
  • The angel and the sickle Rev. 14:17-20
  • Seven angels with seven bowls Rev. 16:1-12
  • Armageddon Rev. 16:13-16
  • Scarlet beast and the woman Rev. 17:3-18
  • The destruction of Babylon Rev. 18
  • The Rider on the white horse Rev. 19:11-21
  • The angel from heaven Rev. 20:1-3
  • The dragon, the key, the chain, the abyss (bottomless pit) Rev. 20:1-2
  • Thousand years Rev. 20:2-7

In addition to these obviously symbolic images, we should also recognize that numbers in Revelation like 3, 7, 12, and 1000, are often to be understood symbolically rather than literally. Colors also often convey symbolic meaning. White is always associated with God or Christ or holiness, so, when we see white characters or objects, we can confidently interpret them as with Christ. By contrast, red means evil or Satan.

All of this means that the student of Revelation needs to approach his study prepared for the hard work of determining the meaning of the book’s complex figures and symbols.


The reader of Revelation, whether biblical scholar or new believer, must also be constrained by the warning of 2 Peter 1:20-21: “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but by men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Thus, the meaning we determine must not only fit the immediate context, but it must also harmonize with the entirety of Scripture.

This challenge of careful interpretation is one of the reasons that studying Revelation is such a difficult undertaking. There is a price that must be paid. The “entrance fee” is much time spent going deep in the Scriptures to learn how to read the Bible. The student of Revelation must be patient and persistent, reading and re-reading passages until they yield their meaning and reveal how they fit into the beautiful tapestry of God’s word. Finally, the student of Revelation must have the humility to admit when their cherished ideas about a particular passage are shown to be incorrect and then to surrender the old idea and replace it with the new.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 2/16/2023                   #623

Eschatological Detective and Interpretive Clues

This post is an excerpt from an upcoming book called, “The Last Act in the Drama: A Guide to the End-Times.” The blog is teaching the skills needed to interpret eschatological passages in the Scripture by acute observation, finding “interpretive clues,” and weaving the observations and clues into a cohesive whole. rmb 4/21/2021.

Sherlock Holmes is probably the most well-known detective of all time. He is a master of solving with apparent ease mysteries that completely baffled others and that seemed to have no solution. What was it that made Sherlock Holmes so remarkably successful? I would suggest that his brilliance was attributed to three specific skills: 1) Acute powers of observation that allow him to see details which others have missed or ignored; 2) the skill to turn observations into meaningful clues; and 3) the ability to put the clues together to create a cohesive picture that reveals the solution to the mystery.

As we are considering the study of biblical eschatology and are attempting to solve the “mysteries” of difficult texts, we will discover that there are parallels between the way Sherlock Holmes solved nefarious mysteries and the way we will interpret the meaning of end-times passages.


Like our friend Sherlock, we, too, will need three specific skills.


First, the eschatological detective needs acute powers of observation. We should look high and low in the text for possible clues that might reveal interpretation and meaning. No detail should be ignored, at least initially, as we dig into the passage. If we have training in the original languages, the Greek or Hebrew/Aramaic texts should be examined. Our observation must be unbiased as we approach the text. This is especially critical in eschatology. We should not come to the text with a preconceived idea of what it means or of what clues we are going to find there. Instead, we approach it like a detective coming to a fresh crime scene.


You might ask, “What are we looking for?” I am glad you asked! We are looking for “interpretive clues.” In breathing out the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit has written into the text a variety of clues that allow the meaning of these end-times passages to be discerned. The following are some examples of “interpretive clues:”

  • Identical words and especially identical phrases that appear in two different places in a book. There are many examples of this type of interpretive clue, especially in Revelation, and these clues are vital to understanding how one section of the book relates to another. “A short time” is in Rev. 12:12, and also in 20:3. The same idea is in Revelation 6:11, “a little while.” This common phrase connects these passages. Another example is the phrase “gather them together for the war” in Rev. 16:14, and the identical phrase appears in Rev. 20:8, while “assembled (their armies) to make war” is in Rev. 19:19. This clue reveals that these passages are describing the same event. These are probably the most powerful interpretive clues, so be alert for these.
  • Symbolic use of colors and numbers in the book of Revelation. The color white is always used to indicate purity and righteousness and is identified with Jesus Christ. Red is associated with Satan. The number “thousand” is not used literally but is symbolic for a large number. Twelve is symbolic for the Old Testament people of God (the twelve tribes) and for the New Testament people of God, the faithful church (the twelve apostles). Seven is the number of completion or perfection (seven lampstands, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc.). Be alert, then, for symbolic use of numbers.
  • Similar characteristics used to describe different characters. This type of clue may be the most subtle, but it is also powerful. When you are reading a passage in, say, Daniel chapter 7, and the character described sounds very similar to the character from, say, 2 Thessalonians, the radar should go up and you should think, “interpretive clue!” These similar characteristics are probably not describing multiple characters but are probably describing the same figure. In this way, we get multiple “snapshots” of this end-times’ figure so he is easier to identify when he appears.


So, those are some of the interpretive clues to look for, but what do we do with these interpretive clues once we have gathered them? This introduces the third skill, which is the art of connecting the interpretive clues to create a cohesive picture of a passage or an entire book. Having gathered our clues, we now need to assign meaning to the clues so that we can understand the end-times passage. Some questions to ponder during this part of the investigation are these:    

  • What is the best understanding of the symbols in this passage? What do these symbols mean?
  • When will the events in this passage occur? Or have they already occurred? Discerning the correct sequence of events is critical to end-times study, particularly in Revelation.
  • What are all the clues and texts about this subject and how do they fit together? If you are trying to figure out the meaning of some figure in the end-times, like, for example, the 144,000 (Rev. 7:1-8; 14:1-5), it is important to locate all the texts about that subject.
  • Is this passage continuous, or are there time-gaps in the passage?
  • Is this passage written in chronological order, or does it jump forward or backward in time?
  • Are these numbers to be understood literally or figuratively? What do these numbers mean?

There are many other questions that we could ask, but the point is that by asking these types of questions, gradually, like a doctor developing a diagnosis, we develop an interpretation of the passage or the section or the book. “This is what this means based on my understanding of the meaning of these interpretive clues.” Then, before we reveal our solution to others, we must test our solution to be sure it does not have inconsistencies. Like a jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces need to fit together.


This, then, is the work of the end-times detective. We enter the text with our most concentrated observation, and we search for interpretive clues. Then we weave these clues and observations together into a cohesive whole that gives us a picture of how God is going to glorify Himself through the bodily return of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ and through the people that Christ has purchased with His blood on the cross. The Bible’s end-times passages give ample opportunity to put these skills to profitable use so that we are edified, and Christ is exalted.

SDG                 rmb                 4/21/2021