Structure and Interpretation
At first look, Revelation appears to be a jumble of images, actions, poetry, and sequences. It is a long book, too, and this makes holding the whole thing in one's mind difficult. The details, fascinating though they are, tend to get in the way of understanding.
There are four visions in the book, each building on the other. These visions are not necessarily in sequence with each other. They complement each other, but do not form a single whole.
The marker which shows when each new vision is beginning is the expression "in the Spirit." This shows the transition from whatever state the author was in to a new (or renewed) vision-experience.
In Rev. 1:10, we read, "On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet," and with that the First Vision begins.
In Rev. 4:2, upon hearing that same voice call him up to an opening in heaven, the author says, "At once I was in the Spirit, and there was before me a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it." And the Second Vision is launched.
Another invitation to a vision is given at the opening of Chapter 17, and in Rev. 17:3, we read, "then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert."
Finally, the Fourth Vision follows yet another invitation, and in Rev. 21:10 we are told, "And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high . . ."
The four visions show Christ in various modes of judgment. In the First Vision, Christ judges his Church. There is both praise and blame to be apportioned, but no question that the Church belongs to him and will be preserved by him.
The Second Vision is the longest. It shows Christ judging the World. God, in his mercy, prolongs the time before the judgment and gives many warnings. In the end, though, the wrath of the holy God is poured out upon his rebellious and impenitent creation.
The Third Vision shows Christ and the Judgment of the Individual Soul. The Church is destined for glory, whatever the defects of her members; whereas, the World is destined for wrath, whatever the goodness shown by its citizens. But these are both collectives: in the end, each individual person must be judged to belong to Christ -- or not.
Finally, the Fourth Vision shows Christ inaugurating the New Age in its fulness, in which time and eternity are reconciled, and God's plans for his children reach their ultimate fulfillment.
In interpreting Revelation, we have to remember that its language is many-sided, by design. Like good poetry, where more than one meaning can be assigned to a phrase, and where it is obvious that the poet intended for the reader to hold both meanings in his mind at one and the same time, so apocalyptic literature must be read on multiple levels at the same time.
Virtually every image, action, line of poetry, and sequence can be read and understood on four different levels simultaneously. One can disentangle the various meanings, of course. But it should be borne in mind that none of these meanings is accidental, and to limit oneself to one set of meanings while neglecting the others is to neglect what God has provided.
The four levels of interpretation we will use in this book are called the Proximate, the Prophetic, the Perennial, and the Personal. Each is fully valid for determining the meaning of the text, but all are also fully operational at all times, and cannot be neglected. (See Figure 3.)
The Proximate. Proximity refers to nearness in time or space. I am using proximate to refer to the meaning that John's first readers would have naturally understood. He was, after all, addressing them about things of their day, in the language of their day. Those first readers would see things we do not, and would be prevented from seeing some things that arise from our having seen more history accumulate since their day. So the question for Proximate Interpretation is, What did it mean then?
The Prophetic. Nevertheless, those first readers would have understood that they were reading a book that also addressed future conditions, and they would have combed its contents to try to understand what God was up to in the world. Insofar as the book has not yet been fulfilled, we are still looking ahead and wondering what God is warning us of. So the question for Prophetic Interpretation is, What will it mean?
The Perennial. Whether addressing ourselves to Ends or Beginnings, when one discusses the ways of God with humanity, one confronts something which does not change much. The way God will end the world's business and the way God began it are illustrative of the nature of God and of what he designs for the world. It is possible to read the whole of Revelation as a description of what God is always doing with his people. The question for Perennial Interpretation then is, What does it always mean?
The Personal. Finally, it is also possible to read Revelation devotionally. What God designs for the whole of the world is also in keeping with what he designs for individuals, and vice versa. Indeed, unless one "takes the matter to heart" -- that is, treats the text as a message from God to oneself, to be acted upon -- then one is merely playing with counters, no matter how brilliant one's handling of the text. So the question for Personal Interpretation is, What does it mean to me now?
At every stage in the unraveling of the tangle which is Revelation, we will make sure that the vision is interpreted at all four levels.
Numbers in Revelation
The peoples of the Near East and Mediterranean world shared a sense of the meaning of numbers that went beyond their use in mathematics. Certain numbers signified certain values or ideas for them. This led to their use in symbolic ways in their writings, especially on religious and mystical subjects.
The ancient Jews and early Christians, while they would have disavowed the use of numerology as an occult science, nevertheless shared the same cultural background and the same symbolic use of numbers. Revelation, like many books of the Bible, makes liberal use of numbers to convey information symbolically.
The most common meanings of numbers (especially in Revelation) are as follows.
One. The number refers to what is unique. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" (Deut. Xx:xx). This number is not prominently used in our text.
Two. The number of humanity. A basic dualism describes the human condition. Human beings come in two sexes (male/female). They are both rational (like the angels) and physical (like the animals). They are both good and evil (at the same time!). The Old Testament shows a fascination with twinning. Jacob and Esau are twins; Cain and Abel are not expressly said to be twins, but they are often treated as such in Jewish commentary. Twins feature prominently in many pagan myths, e.g., Castor and Pollux. Used sparingly in Revelation.
Three. The number of essential (innate) perfection. A three-legged stool is in balance. "A three-fold cord is not easily broken" (Prov. Xx:xx). Christians see in three the number of the Holy Trinity -- a concept alien to the Jews, but very common to pagans, whose triple gods and goddesses are very common. (Not that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is really like the triple nature of the White Goddess, you understand. But the mystery and divinity of threefoldness was a deeply held concept.)
Four. A very important number in Revelation. There are four compass points, four winds, four "corners" to the world. Four represents the created universe in its physical and social existence. There are four "living creatures" at the Court of Heaven to represent the Creation's proper relationship to its Creator (and also to critique the fallen nature of this world, which is out of synch with its Creator).
Five. Not used in Revelation. In later Christian thought, associated with the Five Wounds of Christ. Very important in medieval symbology, especially in association with Christ-figures such as Sir Galahad, whose heraldic device was the pentangle (five-pointed star).
Six. Very prominent in the New Testament. In John xxx., the author makes sure that we understand that there are SIX massive stone jars at Cana, holding water used for Jewish ritual. When Jesus turned that water into wine, he critiqued all Jewish law and custom -- in effect, his use implied that he had a more perfect use for the paraphernalia of the covenant. Thus, six is identified as -- not seven. Seven being the number of achieved perfection, Six is the number of falling short, of "missing the mark" = hamartia (sin). 666 (The Number of the Beast) is thus Sin Tripled (as bad as you can be).
Seven. Very, very prominent in Revelation. Seven is the number of completion, the number of the Sabbath. (Note that our seven-day week is entirely a Jewish invention kept by the Christians.) It is not innate perfection, but achieved perfection; it indicates something raised to its highest level. There are seven churches (= the whole Church); seven seals, trumpets, vials; seven thunders. Seven is the number most highly associated with God in the text.
Eight. Eight has no particular Biblical uses I know of. Later on, the idea of the Resurrection being the Eighth Day of Creation became prominent, which is why in medieval churches, baptistries were frequently eight-sided.
Nine. Three tripled. A divine, mystical number, especially among the pagans. In Norse mythology, Odin offered himself to himself over nine days of suffering. In later Christian thought, the ranks of angels were broken into three groups of three ranks each (according to the pseudo-Dionysian hierarchy of angels). Not important in Revelation.
Ten, Hundred, Thousand, Ten Thousand. Very common in Revelation. Multiples of ten are used to indicate indefinite enlargements. Thus, 1,000 years is any significant stretch of time. Ten thousand (a myriad) was the largest named number among the ancient Greeks. It could mean, literally, 10,000 units of something-or-other. Or it could be used loosely, rather like we say "umpty-gazillion." The Letter of Jude (xx:xx) quotes the non-canonical apocalyptic Book of Enoch (xx:xx), saying, "the Lord is coming with his holy myriads."
Twelve. Very important number in Biblical thought. Jacob had twelve sons, the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. The actual number of tribes and sub-tribes is historically more fluid, but notionally there were exactly twelve of them. Likewise, Jesus started out with twelve apostles. After Judas Iscariot dropped out, the eleven were supplemented by a new election (Matthias), but the number remained vague. Paul also claimed the apostolate, and James the Brother of Jesus certainly had the influence to rival any of the original apostles. Nevertheless the idea of twelve apostles is fixed in our minds, regardless of how many actually had the position. Twelve is thus the number of the people of God.
Twenty-four. 12 + 12 = 24: the OT tribes of Israel and the NT apostles added together. Signifies the whole people of God in all ages.
Three and one-half years, 42 months, 1,260 days. These are all the same measurement. They are half of seven years. While one might argue about how literally we are to take some of these numbers, their most basic symbolism is that the whole length of human history (notionally, seven years) can be divided into "before" and "after" by Christ's coming, in much the same way that we refer to BC ("before Christ") and AD (Anno Domini, "in the year of the Lord"). This does not imply that there will be approximately as many years of history BC as AD; only that Christ's coming is the turning point of human history.
Note on the translation used
I debated long and hard with myself about the wisdom of including the text of Revelation in the same volume with the commentary. In the end, I thought the benefits of having the text handy to refer to outweighed the difficulty of choosing a particular translation.
For those already familiar with the Bible, and also for those with a wide acquaintance with English literature, the King James Version (KJV) has many attractions. It is, for one thing, a translation of shattering beauty. And given its extensive influence upon our culture, one hears echoes of its phrases everywhere. But there is just no getting round the fact that Elizabethan English is all but impenetrable to the non-initiated these days.
The Revised Standard Version (RSV) preserves the best the KJV has to offer, while updating the idiom. It is my favorite study Bible. It is capable of great beauty. It is also clear and accurate. But it is now, alas! out of print. It has been succeeded by the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The NRSV is a fine translation, but the poetic passages are rather clunkified, and the use of what is called inclusive language in the prose passages sometimes makes it appear vague where the original is pointedly precise.
The Jerusalem Bible (JB) and the New English Bible (NEB) both have their admirers, and they are good translations. In its quest for freshness, however, the JB is sometimes just plain quirky; meanwhile, the NEB has one of the highest reading levels of any of the widely used translations.
The Living Bible (LB) is not actually a translation. It is, rather, a paraphrase of the KJV. As the work of one man (himself not a very solid scholar), it tends to be argumentative in its presentation. The meaning is clear, but the meaning is only what Kenneth Paul Taylor thought it was, and the reader is at the mercy of his doctrinal and scholarly limitations.
The Good News Bible (also called Today's English Version, TEV) is a solid translation done in simple English. It would have been a natural choice for tackling a difficult book like Revelation, except for its unfortunate tendency to try to find modern equivalents for all ancient terms. This leads it astray in such matters as the handling of symbolic measurements.
This leaves the New International Version (NIV) as the text of choice for this project. The NIV has the twin advantages of accuracy of translation and wide usage. It is fairly well established as the version of record among many segments of the Bible-reading public. It does not soar like the KJV or the RSV -- but at least it gets you there without losing you in the process.
Where another translation provides a helpful corrective to the NIV, or a familiar phrase, I make reference to it. And of course, I make liberal use of the Greek original to clarify for the reader exactly what is being talked about in the text.
In the end, though, the reader is free to use any version one prefers. I trust that this guide will prove to be equally helpful, no matter which translation of the text one is using.