Remarks on symbolism

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.

Apart from that, it should first of all be noted that 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.

My own research has convinced me that John uses the imagery much more consistent than is often recognised by modern scholars. Much imagery employs words and concepts derived from OT texts that describe divine epiphanies (an epiphany is a divine self-revelation). In the Book of Revelation the imagery may be interpreted and organised around the concepts of wedding and imagery of war and judgment.

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, in my opinion, 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 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

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