W W W W World Wide Web Witness Inc. Home Page Volume What is New
BULLETIN TWENTY SIX
THE BOOK OF REVELATION AND SYMBOLISM
In reading the Bible carefully, there are many things which may help as you wait on its Author.
You must see what the theme is,
and look for any minor themes,
what it is talking about, discern the genre in view, with the biblical definitions that are applicable,
and follow it in all its ways,
not as inventive,
but as one recognising its inventions,
and delighting in them,
embraced by its meanings and embracing them,
adding or subtracting nothing
by mere desire or preference.
It is always necessary to remember Christ's reply to some, who were being so knowledgeable about the resurrection, with their sneers:
"You know neither the Scriptures
nor the power of God."
The Bible is a multi-self-referencing book,
its symbols choice and often sustained in various places: as from the mind of God, it needs to read with rapport, relish and watchful discernment.
Then can understanding come freely,
and refreshing clarity,
like a sunny day in the country... Proverbs 8:8-9.
There are many symbols in any literature of breadth, likely to be used for coherent, collected, impactive expression. There is sometimes question about whether such imaginative and often evocative descriptions are to be taken as they stand, and vested interests may try to make them merely suggestive to alerted imagination, or else prescriptive to receptive intellect. In different respects, they may be both.
It is usually quite easy to tell the difference, for a good writer knows what he/she is doing, informing or stirring, and communicates the point in context. It is obvious that cats and dogs are not the meaning of normative rain reference, as this is never seen, and the immediate and overall context of the work can confirm at once any degree of sportive gesture or dull drill in dead metaphors.
Take Ezekiel's temple of Ch. 40ff.. It is apparent that the Prince is not to be conceived of as having a somewhat confined frequent residence amid temple objects in an Old Covenant setting , nor will sacrifices be prepared, since those things pass away in the consummation (not coming to mind - Jeremiah 3:16), nor does He who IS the burnt offering, offer burnt offerings (Ezekiel 46:4), nor are healing waters with fishermen to be seen winning souls, for all this is a combination of concepts evocative of the consummation expressed in highly penetrating terms, forcing thought and understanding, whilst enlivening the heart and refreshing the mind.
The swamps in Ezekiel 47 are a figure for spiritual compromise and sturgidity, decay and compromise, and the fish are the souls of men, Christ using this feature in His own call to His disciples. The "Prince" in Ezekiel 4--45 who at length is to rule as priest and king, not only in hearts but in fact, indeed surpassing the category of priest as presenter and offering in Himself, is He who will rule the earth before its departure and as God, bring a complete contrast and fulfilment to man on earth, then to the redeemed, in heaven. These things are seen frequently in such sites as in Jeremiah 31, 33, Psalm 72, Isaiah 49-55, 59, 66, Micah 4-7.
Like the Ezekiel 47 pageantry, with such closely wrought meanings attached as in Pilgrim's Progress from Bunyan, so the Temple reconstruction in Old Covenant terms, laced with consummative considerations, these take the viewer on journeys of imaginative exploration, closely attended by meaning controlled by the direct statements on what is to be, when and how so often made.
It is so in the book of Revelation. Much is nothing to do with imagery as is the case in Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah for example. But in some parts, these ancillary activists are used with dramatic effect. We have to avoid UNPROVABLE 'interpretations' such as making the initial churches mentioned in Revelation 1-3, to represent 'ages' and so forth, since this is merely an imagination of readers, with no warrant from the context. It may have some such indication, but this is a different realm entirely from biblical interpretation, which needs either to be there stated, or of certain implication.
Much in it, however, is much to do with imagery. There is no temple in heaven (Revelation 21:22), and this is one of those intimations which render explicit the obvious: for Christ IS the sacrifice and redeemer, and the pageantries of the symbolic past are fulfilled as in Hebrews. Thus the use of such a figure as a temple in Revelation 11 is a recrudescence of the meaning of Sinai, as in the reference in Hebrews 12:21ff., where it is statedly historical but of course, vividly and graphically applied.
The temple area in the depiction in Revelation 11 is also not a few acres in intent, since it represents the subjugation of Jerusalem, the container city, and of Israel, the Jerusalem occupiers of yore by divine appointment, for the Gentile Age (as in Romans 11); but its meaning is plain. Indeed, it interprets itself, declaring this: "for it has been given to the Gentiles. And they will tread the holy city underfoot."
It is the use of a vivid symbol for what it implies, portends and this in a setting which makes a brief statement easily and effectively to be provided. Similarly, the witnesses of Revelation 11:3ff.*1 are markedly aligned with those of Zechariah 4, and the basis in that prophet is here even spelt out explicitly, in terms of olives and oil, this being the application of the meaning there in Zechariah, a sort of illustration of the principles of interpretation, that they should neither be ephemeral yet broadcast, a loudspeaker for any imagination which comes to mind, nor dull, ignoring clear references to other contexts, known symbols. As with much that is striking in literature, there may even be challenges to mind, like sparks from the hitting of a plough on a stone, to alert the reader to underlying meanings, rather than encourage sleep in dull and distant slumber.
What then of heavenly references in Revelation 21-22 ?
It is stated that the heaven and earth will pass away and that no more room will be found for them. There is nothing symbolic or imaginative about that, as in II Peter 3. Such things were created, are disposable and will be disposed of (Matthew 24:35, Isaiah 51:6). But images are far from out of place just because directly factual material is in place. Sometimes, indeed, an image may be used which just conceivably could be taken as an addition in its own terms, but has far greater impact and need not necessarily involve the merely direct. The British word through Churchill, "We shall fight them on the beaches" for example is evocative in the extreme: it mentions a shore where an invasion could indeed arrive, but its main meaning is that to whatever extent, and in whatever disproportion or inducement of desperation aggressors might come, fighting will be intense from the outset. Resistance will be immense, unrelenting,remorseless and unconditional. Beaches might well be involved, but it is the spirit of the thing which is illustrated not least and as a major element.
So in Revelation 21-22, it is not impossible that some great waterway in heaven will occupy its place, but the point is not this, for it is indicative richly in symbolism of much, which in such settings is often found by symbol, and in particular, in this book. The point and purport and purpose of the "river of life which proceeds from the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Revelation 22:1), with the tree of life on either side of the street, yielding fruit for the healing of the nations, is noted. The composition of terms has suggestion of, reference to and involvement in processes which are representative of much, through deft interweaving of noted objects in broad setting in the Bible; but by no means are such references to be taken as limited to, or even confined in their outward forms. There is no law, sometimes, against taking them as having a possible direct existence, but the evocation - say of fishermen in the river of life in Ezekiel, would be a mere misreading of the sustained depths of the imagery. It is exceedingly clever.
So here if you work out all that is IMPLIED in terms of a new heaven and a new earth, no place being found for the former one, it is clear that the botanical means of removal of cursing and hatred and the former things of designed symbols of salvation, as in the earlier sacrificial system of Moses, as in Revelation 22:2ff, and the provision of final wonders of revelation and nearness to the Lord, is not the crux. It is rather an index to what is to come by culminating contrast. We shall ACTUALLY see His face.
In all these things, a certain modesty, with energy is needed. It is necessary to be alert, like a good hunting dog, to every expression of the master, and not to be hung up on dull, dispirited preoccupations, but to " read" what he is saying with his signs. They are expressive devices, neither null, nor dull, nor unenterprising, not thoughtless but intensively meaningful and to be interpreted by the normal principles inspirited over time before, illustrated on former occasions and associated in action together. The context of these things in the past speaks to their meaning now, and the new situation may be demanding of renewed realisation of the essence of things past, in new applications to things present. But they are not intended to be confusing or unclear, but intensively clear and highly directive. Turn back to the hunting dog situation: They ASSUME in the hound, a concentration of the point at issue, in this case hunting, on past hunting in terms of the present, and the present in terms of the past.
As to the limits of unsymbolic meaning within the case of a given impartation, you have to be practical and particular. Thus you have to see the symbolic, with whatever detailed fulfilment it may add as such when the time comes, in terms of what cannot in some cases, be intended as more than a picture, depiction: a a cartoon is within its genre. But in the book of the Lord, what it depicts is not tentative or unclear, but obvious to the mind willing to be led (cf. Proverbs 8:8). Thus all that the temple and altar STOOD for is intended in Ezekiel 47 with its river of communication. In Revelation we find the river proceeding from the throne of God, rivers of water as in John 7, issuing as it were in overflow as they enter in abundance, from the heart of those who become Christ's. So here in Revelation the source of that river is traced. It is associated with the Holy Spirit, in its pure and refreshing coverage moving throughout the domain of delight in the presence of the Lamb and the blessing of the Father.
In general, in such plethoras of symbolism, as are often found in the book of Revelation or in sustained allegories as in Ezekiel 47, it is apparent that there is here, precisely as in the parables of Jesus Christ, the Messiah Himself, a METHOD OF TEACHING. It contains much for reflection, and when the imagination is staggered by the sheer height of the thrust, the meaning inherent, like a vast cliff face when one looks up towards its height during a walk, yet the mind supply and delightedly sees the portent of the whole. The biblical text may also, in some cases, collect a number of past symbols from past teaching, and placing them together, let their overall pattern show even more clearly the understanding in view.
You may have a clearly allegorical element, like the fishermen in Ezekiel 47, and the various phases of the river flow, and have these turned into explicit applications of some part, or even the whole, as when Christ declared He would make them fishers of men (Mark 4:19).
As this pulse and power, penetration and its surrounds in various contexts proceeds, the various expressions and correlatives in thought, meaning, word and application convey truth like milk coming from many cows, and being sucked together into one extensive vat, there now is found a rich resource. It is patent in meaning, application, point, pith and power. Imagination in terms of metaphor, simile or even allegory - as in the sustained case in Pilgrim's Progress, outside the Bible though filled with its words, and not outside the ways of effective and highly comprehensible literature. Clarity of insight like that of the music of Handel's Messiah, has a vast resurgence, reality is the more clearly marked and outlined, the danger of snuffling and snoring in the presence of exquisite words of the Bible is avoided, and yet the majesty is only intensified in the end, through the expansive, explosive, everlasting thrust of its variegated passages.
It is not, even in remarkable expressions in terms of gold streets and jewelled gates, as in Revelation 21, to be dismissed as mere glow, but to express precise information. Take the foundations of the city therein described.
Meaning ? Thus so far from various sources of religion entering into the eternal provisions for the saints, in the presence of the Almighty through the redemption of the Lamb, there are twelve foundations, and on them are written the names of the apostles. Truth is not mutated, dissociated, rejoined, remade. It is fulfilled. The everlasting Gospel (Revelation 14) is not mulled or nullified, but precisely maintained AT THE FOUNDATIONAL LEVEL.
The gates are moreover guarded, another expression of the fact that there is a DOOR as to a house in Christ's parable (John 10), and it is not through any other aperture that one can join the fold. Again the river (Revelation 22) which is so lovely and pure carries loveliness freshly to every point, as does the Spirit of God, and the leaves for the healing of the nations show a wisdom that heaven has and this world lacks, in that continually there is no scope for any resurgence of the old passions of terribly misled mankind.
These various intimations in type are frequently found amid multiply applicable symbols. As in a flower in its elegant artistry and staggering use of botanically complex laws and procedures, there are many ways to communicate, yet in the end, the overall meaning if obvious, vast and profound. Not for nothing did a flower stir Wordsworth beyond tears.
Here is something way beyond any other function than the use of aesthetic agility, facility and address, and architectural fragility and brilliance, to induce wonder, sensitise perception, rejoice the delight in beauty, and in the source of it, give scope to act deeply. It reminds of the place of ethical beauty and personal holiness, intense in the creative, original painter of the flowers, expresses the wonder of the generosity of the grace of God who is so far from being merely utilitarian, that it is like the love of a mother or provision of a father, within the world.
Yet in its buoyant abundance, it is out of this world, a blessed invasion, a reminder of the sheer rush of wonder in the Lord, as well as a most explicit contrast with the provisions of the curse upon it and man, found in the snake, the mosquito and the poisonous spiders, in the ways of misanthropic man and devilish wars of incandescent hatred and gross debauchery. Though some abroad in war, are to defend the non-fighters from hideous oppression, yet many wars touch on pride, and international touchiness, or undivine aspirations, to control, to oppress, to render others subservient, to rob, to rubbish, to look superior or to prove some nation is the best, though showing it by its ways, actually to be among the worst.
So such beauties as noted earlier become a blessed contrast; and this is rendered magnificent in spiritual beauty in that abundant generosity, both personal and intensively spiritual, which God has shown in the beauty of the tender pity implicit in the willingness of Christ to come appointed to be a sacrifice for sin. This, so, that justice might be wrought, but transferred to Him who paid (cf. Romans 3, 5, Micah 7), mercy shown (Micah 7:18ff.), its means soaring into prodigies of divine grace. The spirit was tender, the grave was rough; the use of imagination was intense (as in Psalm 22 in the descriptions of the elements of the killing), but the objective fact of ecclesiastical murder was as unavoidable, simple and clear, as the torn remnants of a car in a head-on smash.
Let us return to Revelation's last Chapters.
One could readily produce perhaps dozens of points from Revelation 21-22 about the nature and disposition of heaven, from the thrust of the varied direct statements and vivid, imaginative devices. No part is dull, every one provides informative meaning, and the applications and intimations from former biblical contexts, apparent in this text, rejoice the heart in weaving a mode of information that conducts your spirit and mind into sacred beauties and transformations from the present time, depicting in absolute terms many items of transcending beauty and incisive truth, in testimonial enrichment.
Thus from these words we learn that NO barrier will there be between the Christian and his God, the very face of God will be clear, and man will indeed see God in all His stark reality, in fitting spiritual mutuality. His worship, that is the worship of God, will be as purely and distinctively unique as has for so long been prescribed on earth, since we are those who see and worship the truth, when on course, and He is the One who made it all for appreciation and joy to behold and even scope to participate. This, indeed, is not as what we are not, as if gods (Ezekiel 28:9), but as what we become, children of God, here consummated from the day of our first coming (as in John 1:12).
He came to us; there we have come to Him in the form fitting for the redeemed.
See for example, on the two witnesses as a topic, Acme, Alpha and Omega: Jesus Christ, Ch. 5.