Figurative Language and Symbolism – an Excerpt from Revelation

The following is an excerpt from Peter Williamson’s Revelation volume in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture.

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An especially challenging feature of Revelation is its extensive use of images, symbols, and figurative language. Contemporary readers may ask, “Why doesn’t the author speak plainly? How can we know what should be taken symbolically and what literally?”

Cover ArtMany people today are more literal in their thinking than ancient peoples, perhaps because of the esteem with which our age regards technology and the exact sciences. The literature and iconography of both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture of the era in which Revelation was written manifests a love for symbolic communication that the early Christians shared with the people of their day.

Revelation makes frequent use of similes, metaphors, and symbols. A simile compares two unlike things by the use of “like” or “as,” while a metaphor attributes the qualities of one thing to another without using “like” or “as.” Revelation employs over seventy similes, beginning with the vision of “one like a son of man,” who is described by using nine similes (1:10, 13–16). These similes illuminate particular aspects of Jesus’ person and role, while conveying that the risen Jesus surpasses anything his readers have experienced.

Among Revelation’s many metaphors is the risen Lord’s diagnosis of the spiritual condition of the church at Laodicea: “lukewarm . . . poor, blind, and naked” (3:16–17). A symbol is something that stands for something else. Although they occasionally function as mere place markers for the things they refer to, symbols can be used to communicate depths of meaning that go far beyond mere reference. The harlot Babylon is a symbol of Rome, but also of every proud civilization that resists God, persecutes his people, and idolizes wealth and pleasure.

….The symbolic language of Revelation engages the reader far more powerfully than it would if its message were stated in literal prose. Some readers find the visions of Revelation so objectionable or frightening that they are eager to seize upon any congenial symbolic or metaphorical interpretation. Others, however, are suspicious of any interpretation of a biblical text that is not literal.

Readers who were introduced to Revelation through a literal interpretation may be reluctant to reconsider what they learned, rightly on guard against rationalist interpretation that undercuts the miracles of the Bible through allegorizing or moralizing. Often younger readers are especially resistant toward nonliteral interpretation, impressed by Revelation’s dramatic narrative and concerned lest symbolic interpretation empty the text of relevance to the real world.

Whatever one’s predisposition, it is best to approach Revelation as objectively as possible, conscious of one’s inclinations, yet open to discovering afresh what John and the Holy Spirit who inspired him are saying through the text.

©2015 by Peter S. Williamson. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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