1. Symbolic Imagery

The Symbolic Imagery

The Book of the Revelation has long been considered the strangest book in the Bible. It has created confusion and dread on the one hand, and joy and comfort on the other. It has been seen as a crystal ball to peer into the future, or it has been seen as an enigma wrapped in a mystery that simply boggles the brain.

This book has moved some to a fierce dogmatism on a thousand details. Some have spent considerable energy mapping out their intricate charts with titles such as Pre-millennialism, Post-millennialism and A-millennialism, and some to talk about Pre-tribulation rapture, Mid-tribulation or Post-tribulation rapture, and about the papacy and the European Common Market, and modern computers.

In the few articles on this website I do not hope to “explain” the details of this book. My only task will be to help you read this book as the first readers read it at the close of the first Christian century.

One of the most confusing realities about this book is its high symbolic nature. It is filled with swirling symbols that come so fast we can hardly keep our footing. A classic example of this can be found in Revelation 12:1-17. (NRSV)

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.

12 Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.

Why the Symbolism?

John has chosen to write the book using very strange symbols. No one that I know insists upon taking all or even most of the symbols literally. (7 headed anti-Christ, Jesus as a lamb, 7 holy spirits, 1/3rd of the stars falling, etc.) The writer is employing symbols to communicate crucial truths. But why would he do this? Why not use clear words to get his message across?

What follows are some ways that may help you interpret this book of symbolic images. If any of them are not helpful, feel free to discard them.

Apocalyptic Literature

John is using a style of writing that had been in existence for more than 200 years. The original audiences would not have been confused, particularly if they were Jewish and were familiar with the temple in Jerusalem, and knew the Old Testament scriptures. (The author in 404 verses uses 275 O.T. allusions). So John is using a style (genre) of writing long used to speak about things that are mysterious, unknown, or visionary in character. The prophets Ezekiel, Daniel, & Zechariah in the Old Testament used this style in its earlier form. The ancient audience knew how to read this kind of a book; we have lost that art for the most part. In our era we do know the art of Science Fiction & Fantasy, such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. It is very different than historical fiction which must adhere to the possible (verisimilitude), written by such people as James Michener and Herman Wouk. We read those writers, bearing in mind the genre that they belong to.


Visions are obviously visual things. But the author must put into words what he has seen. It is like one person describing a painting to another, or describing a dream after waking up. A picture is worth a thousand words, but it might take much more than a thousand words to describe a picture and make it “see-able” by the hearer.

Another complication of a vision is that the vision may be momentary, but may need to be unpackaged section by section. (See Picasso’s “Guernica” at http://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp#prettyPhoto[image1]/0/   To verbally describe this great work of art would take countless words and still fail to do it justice. But it would be worth while trying if only to whet the appetite of the hearer to want to see it one day.


Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are beautiful beyond description. Beauty without words. What does this marvellous music mean? It doesn’t mean anything, but it does something to us. It just is – a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It is real, it is true and it is beautiful.

John Keats has declared, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (Ode to Grecian Urn) But beauty is not to be understood, but enjoyed and experienced. The critic might be able to take a rose and remove each petal, stamen, and stalk and examine them in detail, but it will kill the thing. The Book of the Revelation is a symphony of kaleidoscopic colours, shapes and sounds, not to be understood so much as to be experienced.

A Painting.

A photograph of a person, and a painting of that same person are not the same. We ask the question, which is most accurate? A photograph that captures the person in a moment of time, or a painting done over several days? The painter captures the image of the person in a posed position, intentionally clothed for the occasion, with a background, that is not the studio, but a symbolic background that communicates something about the posed figure. A photograph captures only the facts of that moment, but the painting can include the history and the effect of that person throughout his or her life.

When the artist paints a scene it is the same. A photograph captures a moment, but a painting can capture the experience of the viewer’s perception of a place. Things can be added to a painting to create a verisimilitude of the external and the internal fused together. The Book of the Revelation is a painting, or if you like, a series of paintings with what was “seen” blended with how it affected the viewer.

Another note about paintings. In art galleries there is an optimum place to stand or sit to look at each painting. It is often indicated by a seat located in just the right place, or a line on the floor to stand behind, where the best perspective is afforded. We are not to get so close that we can see the individual brush strokes, nor the details, but to step back until the right perspective is gained. Matthew Arnold thinking about his friend said, “He saw life steadily and saw it whole.” Seeing the painting as a whole, not in its parts only, is crucial. It is that way with the Book of the Revelation. The meaning is in the whole, not in its parts. A “verse a day” will guarantee a misreading of this rich canvas.

Modern Art

I have for 50 years been a lover of the art of Pablo Picasso. I mentioned his “Guernica” a few moments ago. This is a mural 25 feet long and 12 feet high. It was painted at the time of the Spanish Civil War that lasted from 1936 to 1939. The Basque sacred city Guernica was bombed on April 26, 1937. The whole world was aghast. Several artists painted scenes from that terrible event. Picasso did the same, but with a significant set of differences. His was not only immense in size, which made it impossible to ignore, but the other oddity is that there is nothing about it that makes anyone think of the city of Guernica, if it were not for the title he assigned to the piece. For Picasso has not only painted the outrage of the bombing of one city in 1937, but he has portrayed the universal agony of the common person in a world at war.

Picasso painted a smaller portrait called “The Woman who cries.http://www.pablopicasso.org/the-weeping-woman.jsp#prettyPhoto[image1]/0/   It is a portrait of his mistress Dora Marr, whom he had wounded to the heart. She never looked at all like his painting. She was beautiful and well dressed! But, he is painting exactly how she felt. And not just how Dora felt, but he is painting the universal experience of sadness and weeping. He was painting the significance of the event, and went to its heart, refusing to portray only its surface appearance.   Edvard Munch was doing the same in his painting “The Scream”. These paintings take us to “understanding with the heart” and not just the head. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1984.1203.1

  A Play

Another way to read the Book of the Revelation is to see it as a great drama, somewhat like a Shakespearian play, or the Book of Job. It is to be experienced inside a two hour time frame. The Revelation lays out before us a great drama in 7 acts with 7 scenes in each one, with interludes, moments of silence, and a Greek choir (heavenly creatures) singing songs of response. With Shakespeare, one does not have to have understood each line, to have understood the whole event. But many of us have noticed that reading Shakespeare is one thing, but hearing Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson speak and act the lines turns words into an unforgettable experience.


T.S. Eliot the great 20th century poet was accused of being a thief & a robber! But he insisted, “Not so!” He simply recycled things that had value, and put them to new uses. He saw himself as one who used old lumber, but refabricated it into new designs. He never simply borrowed, but improved, or reversed, or reinterpreted what he found in the earlier writers. He was paying a compliment to his sources, acknowledging that he was standing on the shoulders of giants, and yet creating something brand new. The Book of the Revelation is replete with images taken from earlier sources, but put to new uses in his book. In John’s book he takes old images but takes us as C. S. Lewis says, “further in and higher up”

Another thing about poetry: poetry must be read out loud. This avoids using the front door of the reasoning capacity, which stands guard against all new ideas that it does not recognize. Instead poetry, music & art slip in the side door, directly to the imagination, the imaging room, where new things are created out of things imported. The poets evoke, intimate, prompt, and stimulate our own thinking on the matter at hand.

One more thing about poetry: have you noticed that when printed, they are words arranged on a page very differently than when we print prose. Poems are written with lines that create a cadence, a rhythm, a design of their own, and allow lots of white space. A poem is a work of art that uses only words and white space that enables it to say more than it says. The Book of the Revelation should be read as though it were a great poem, perhaps like Homer’s Odyssey, his Iliad or Milton’s Divine Comedy.

A Book to be read aloud  

The Book of the Revelation is to be read non-stop. It takes only about an hour. John opens his book saying “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.” (Rev 1:3)

In an age mostly illiterate, this book was to be read out loud to congregations throughout Asia Minor. It was aimed for the ear, not the eye. It was for oral presentation, not a book for individual reading in private.   Recent writers such as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dr. Seuss wrote for the ear, not so much for the eye. Reading something out loud again aims for the imagination, rather than our reasoning faculties. In many churches the lectionary texts for that day are read out loud to a very literate congregation. It is not that we can’t read it for ourselves, but the words read out loud become “sacramental” in their effect. Some commentators on this book have suggested that it may have been read as a preface to the celebration of Holy Communion, where we “taste” and “see” that the Lord is good.

Tensive & Steno symbolism

Those who study our use of symbols describe two ways we use them. Some are called Steno symbols, which means that there is a one-for-one equivalent in the image, used in most allegories. Limiting ourselves to this use of symbols, in Rev. 2:20 – Jezebel is a woman in the church of Thyatira who claims to be a prophet, whose real name may have been “Gertrude.” The Narnia Chronicles written by C. S. Lewis use many tensive symbols: The Lion is Aslan, who is Christ, so does John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Tensive symbols, however are poly-valent, that is, they have multiple meanings, which evoke a range of imaginings.   For instance, The woman in chapter 12: is she Mary the mother of our Lord; or is she Israel; or is she the church? Is she the goddess Isis, mother to Apollo? Is she Joseph in Genesis 37? Are the 12 stars the zodiac? The 12 tribes, the 12 apostles? None or some or all of the above? We find that some symbols evoke a range of possibilities. Most of the symbols in the Book of the Revelation are tensive. That makes the book more difficult to decipher to those who like neat answers to complex matters.

The significance of particular symbols

As we view the symbolic images, we are able to discern many of them

  • Some symbols are explained by John. He helps the reader by explaining or hinting at what he means. 7 stars, 7 lamp stands, the great dragon, 7 heads of the Beast, 666 and others.
  • Some of his symbols are taken from the Old Testament. The tree of life, Sodom, Jezebel. Four Horsemen, etc. John takes images from 27 of the 39 O.T. books, though Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah & Daniel are the dominant ones.
  • Some of his symbols are taken from New Testament, particularly from the life of Jesus noted in the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.
  • Some are taken from other ancient Jewish literature. The Septuagint (LXX), which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, as well as the Old Testament Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha furnish the background for some of the images used.
  • Some are taken from the culture of the day. The Greco-Roman-Persian world had its own plethora of images within their own mythologies and histories and cultures that John will use that may have been readily understood by his first readers.

Because many of us are unfamiliar with most of the literature of that ancient world, we are handicapped in our reading of the Book of the Revelation. But there is a second handicap that most of us live with. We do not understand the history of the Romanized world of the last decades of that first century. It is to give some context to that history that the next article is directed. This may help us better experience the reading of this marvellous but mysterious book.

2 Responses to 1. Symbolic Imagery

  1. Stephen Merriman says:

    David my brother, as always still my prof and mentor. I have much to consider in these readings, thank you for these ongoing contributions and challenges. David I did notice a repetition of the paragraph at Modern Art and A Play re: I have for 50 years…… Intentional? Much left to read. Blessings and my love and respect to you and Amy. Stephen

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