Symbolic Objects in Revelation
As we go further in our study of the symbolism of Revelation let’s keep in mind that the writer wrote his message primarily for the encouragement and edification of the Christians of his own time. We must make a close study of the church of that day and acquaint ourselves with the moral, religious, social, and political conditions of the day when the book was written and must understand the mind of the people as they faced all the perplexities of a government intent upon their annihilation.
In Revelation the ordinary rules of interpretation cannot be followed. Textural Criticism usually requires that the words of any passage of Scripture must be understood in their plain and natural sense unless there is some reason to take them figuratively. The presumption is always in favor of the literal meaning. If one interprets it otherwise, he must show the cause. This is not the case in Revelation. Because this book is presented in pictorial form, one must assume that the symbols are to be taken figuratively unless there is good reason for regarding them as literal. There are few places where literal language is used in the midst of symbolic language, but these stand out in the context just as Greek words stand out in a context of English.
When we read the Bible story of David and Goliath we see the boy, the giant, the armor, the sling and the victory. This is the entire story and while it teaches us that God was behind David’s victory, the story does not have any symbolic references and is to be taken as a literal battle. But when we read in the seventeenth chapter of Revelation about a scarlet woman, riding on a beast with seven heads and ten horns we must see not just the story but what it symbolizes. We cannot take this as literal information concerning a literal woman on a literal beast, rather we must see that the scene symbolizes some fact or truth in the spiritual life or experience of Christianity. The interpreter who starts out to understand Revelation literally starts in the wrong direction, and the further he proceeds in this direction the less he will understand the book.
The writer uses these symbols to communicate his thoughts to those who will read and understand the symbols and at the same time in order to conceal his ideas from those outside the Christian circle. To us living in the present time this concealment of sensitive facts from outsiders may not appear to be of great importance, but the conditions of the day in which the work was written reveal that it was extremely important and necessary. The meaning of the greater part of the symbolism of Revelation is quite clear to the modern reader who is willing to see it. There are some symbols which are not so easily understood and where there is much room for diversity of opinion. About these one can ill afford to be dogmatic. The wise thing to do is to seek earnestly to find the most probable meaning of the symbol to those who first received the book and consider that as the most likely interpretation.
In order to understand the true meaning of Revelation, we must seek to grasp the visions or series of visions as a whole without pressing the details of the symbolism. It must be noted that many of the details are for the dramatic effect and not for adding to the minute meaning of a passage. The details of a vision may have significance, but in many instances they are used only to fill out the scenery. This same principle applies in the interpretation of parables and often in the books of poetry. For instance, observe verses 5 and 6 of the Psalm 91:
“You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, Nor of the arrow that flies by day,
Nor the pestilence that walks in darkness,
Nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday.”
Taken in connection with the whole purpose of the Psalm the details reflect the idea that the believer is always under the protective care of God. While this is true, taking any one of the details by itself and it is not true. Believers do fall in battle, and are ill with contagious diseases as well as others. The details of the Psalmist are not intended that way! They are for the cumulative effect to assure men that God cares for those who trust in Him.
Similarly in Revelation the details are added to make a tremendous impression of the things discussed. In Revelation 6:12-17 we have an overwhelming impression of approaching doom and human terror. This is sufficient without asking the minute symbolism of each falling star, the removal of the heavens, and the moving of each mountain. The safest policy is to consider the overall truth and let the details of the symbolism fit in to complete the picture in the most natural way.
As with numbers discussed previously, there are some objects used in the Revelation which carry with them a symbolic or figurative meaning. For instance, a lamb is used to represent Jesus Christ. Revelation 5:12, “…Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.” Following is a list of several objects used in the Revelation and what they represented in the minds of the first readers.
Ark of the Covenant:
It is called the “ark of His covenant” in Revelation 11:19. This is taken from the Old Testament as a symbol of God’s covenant with mankind. In John’s day, as it will be until the end of time, this was a direct reference to the New Covenant; Christianity.
was used by the apocalyptic Jewish writers to symbolize the seat of government where all evil befalling them emanated. Peter wrote: “The church that is at Babylon , elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son.” (1 Peter 5:13). It is obvious that Peter had Rome in mind when he wrote this. Mark was mentioned and had been summoned to Rome by the apostle Paul (2 Timothy 4:11). The first reference of Babylon in Revelation holds clues that positively identify it for the rest of the book: “And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (Revelation 14:8). Under the rule of king Nebuchandnezzar, the Babylon of old forced her citizens to bow down to a statue of the king, thus making all the nations under her rule guilty of spiritual fornication. The literal Babylon of the first century was nothing more than a military station. It was certainly not a great city that could force all the nations under her to worship the beast and his image (Revelation 14:9). Ancient Babylon had been utterly destroyed never to be rebuilt (Jeremiah 50). The Babylon of Revelation is therefore Rome which, like the real Babylon, participated in the false deification and worship of her emperors.
literally a wild savage jungle brute, was used by the Jewish apocalyptic writers to symbolize a ruler or his government. See Daniel 7:3 through 8:4.
Children of Israel:
is an Old and New Testament symbol representing God’s people. The term “children of Israel” occurs 644 times in the King James version of the Bible with three of them in Revelation.
is the general representation of death or impending doom and despair. “My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat” (Job 30:30). “Look not upon me, because I am black , because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept” (Song of Solomon 1:6). “For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black : because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it” (Jeremiah 4:28). Black is a dark color which is the opposite of light, which represents all that is good. Things that are described as being black or dark are in contrast with things that are light. “He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in the darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is no occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in the darkness, and walketh in the darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because the darkness hath blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:9-11).
represents sin (Isaiah 1:18), the severity of death, warfare, and bloodshed. The dragon in Revelation was described as “red” The red horse in Revelation 6:4 went out to “take peace from the earth“. The ancient sacrificial worship of the Israelites required that the blood of animals be shed for the sins of the faithful. Jesus’ blood was also shed for the sins of the faithful of all time.
symbolizes purity or victory. In Revelation 7:14 John portrays those who “washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Isaiah wrote “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18). At the mount of transfiguration with Peter, and James, and John, Jesus was “transfigured before them; and his garments became glistering, exceeding white, so as no fuller on earth can whiten them (Mark 9:2-3).
is symbolic of a calm and tranquil setting of hope and assurance amid a storm of persecution and violence. The seas usually represent violent unrest but the sea of glass or of crystal is just the opposite, being smooth and quiet, representing in the minds of the first century people the peace which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Revelation 4:6 “and before the throne, as it were a sea of glass like a crystal;…” This crystal sea or sea of glass is a figurative barrier which stands between God’s people on earth and the throne. In the end of Revelation, this crystal sea is not envisioned and the saved have a direct and perfect fellowship with God in heaven. In heaven, the saved do not need a calm crystal sea of assurance and hope amid a world of persecution and violence to stand upon, they stand in the presence of God.
“Defiled with women”:
as used by OT writers carries with it the idea of spiritual fornication which was idolatry. However, the term woman must be taken in context with the symbolism to determine its use because the term woman can be used in different senses. Throughout the Revelation, the worshipping of false Gods was referred to as “fornication”. Those who were never “defiled with women” and were “virgins” had never bowed themselves to idolatry. See Revelation 14:4
The diadem originated with the Persians and signifies royalty. Monarchs of ancient Persia wore a blue band interwoven or marked with white. In time a diadem came to be ornamented with gold and jewels and when worn identified one as a monarch or royalty. Diadems were worn by the figures which represent Satan in the Revelation. This is not to be confused with the “stephanos” crown of the victor which was worn by those who would win in the end. Satan never wears the this crown, rather he wears only the diadem because he never wins any permanent victories.
Door: Used symbolically in Revelation 3:8; 3:20 and 4:1. “Behold, I stand at the door , and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20). The symbol “door” is expressive of Christ’s patient, persistent and affectionate appeal to men. The overall symbolic meaning of the word is the means by which something worthwhile is obtained or opportunity.
Symbolized of Satan, the devil. This is one of those figures that is identified within the Revelation in more than one place. “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:9). “And he laid hold on the dragon , that old serpent, which is the Devil , and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,” (Revelation 20:2). The dragon was never anything but Satan in the Revelation.
is a familiar Old Testament figure used to describe God’s judgment against the enemies of His people. Against the enemies of Judah, God said, “Thou shalt be visited of the LORD of hosts with thunder, and with earthquake , and great noise, with storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire” (Isaiah 29:6). Joel said that “the heavens and the earth shall shake” when God, “shall roar out of Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem” (Joel 3:16).
Represented a number of things in scripture. Predominantly it was used as a purification process. There were the burnt sacrifices, the incense was burnt. In Zechariah 13:9 fire is used symbolically to refine or to purify like silver is purified. Fire also is a symbol of divine wrath in destruction or punishment (Genesis 19:24, Exodus 9:23). Fire in the Old Testament is especially associated with the divine presence (Genesis 15:17, Exodus 3:2, Exodus 13:21, Exodus 19:18)
as seen in seen in Revelation 16:13. “The unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.” Verse 14 goes on to explain what the unclean spirits were. It is significant to note that it was not frogs that came out of the mouths of satan and his servants. The subject of this vision is the unclean spirits. The Jewish people under the old law were commanded to view frogs as an abomination. “These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you:” (Leviticus 11:9-10). Anything that would be described like a frog would be loathsome to a Jew who lived in the first century, therefore the unclean spirits would have been an abomination to them.
Gog and Magog:
are of Old Testament derivation (Ezekiel 38 ) and were used by the Jewish apocalyptic writers as symbolic of enemies of the Messiah. The terms were used primarily to identify someone who rallied with the devil and contaminated the worship of the saints.
symbolizes power or authority. The common figurative use of “horn” is taken from the image of battling animals as seen in Daniel 8:7 to denote aggressive strength. In Zechariah 1:18-21 “horns” stand for power in general. In Habakkuk 3:4 the “horns coming out of his [God’s] hand” represent His power. When, in Daniel 7:7-24; 8:3,8-9,20-21; Revelation 13:1; 17:3,7,12,16, many horns are given to the same animal, they symbolize successive nations or rulers. But the seven horns in Revelation 5:6; 12:3 denote the completeness of the malevolent or righteous power. In Revelation 13:11, however, the two horns of the lesser beast point to power, but not to the degree of the power of the greater beast, nor of God.
represents strength, war or the consequences thereof. The horse is referred to figuratively in Zechariah as well as Revelation. A chariot and horses of fire take Elijah up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11 f). In Psalms 20:7; 33:17; and 76:6, the great strength of the horse is recalled as a reminder of the greater strength of God. In Job 39:19-25 we have a magnificent description of a spirited war-horse.
Figuratively, incense was a symbol of ascending prayer. The multitude were praying while Zacharias offered incense (Luke 1:10), and in Revelation 5:8; 8:3, the incense in the heavenly temple is connected and even identified (5:8) with “the prayers of the saints.“
Isle or Islands:
The islands represented to the 1st century people the outer reaches or most remote lands and far away possessions of a nation. At the fall of Tyre, God said the islands would shake, “Thus saith the Lord Jehovah to Tyre: shall not the isles shake at the sound of thy fall, when the wounded groan, when the slaughter is made in the midst of thee?” (Ezekiel 26:15) “Now shall the isles tremble in the day of thy fall; yea, the isles that are in the sea shall be dismayed at thy departure” (Ezekiel 26:18)
The key or keys in scripture imply power and authority, either within the subject individual or delegated by another. Each time keys are claimed or used, they imply the exercise of power from without, or may be used to open from the outside.
Lake of fire and brimstone:
is a New Testament symbolism for hell. Used in Revelation as the “lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Revelation 19:20). Later in Revelation 20:10 we learn that this lake will be a place of torment “forever and ever”, and will be where the devil, the beast and the false prophet will spend eternity. Death and Hades will be cast into the lake of fire, (Revelation 20:14).
is a religious symbol representing absolute purity or goodness. The lamb is used in the New Testament to symbolize Christ. “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). Jesus was compared to a lamb in prophecy, (Isaiah 53:7) with this particular prophecy being explained to the Ethiopian Eunuch by Philip, (Acts 8:32).
Lightning, voices and thunders:
Are terror-striking signs showing the latent power of the individual to which they are attributed. See Exodus 19:16. Lightning and thunder are representative of the power of God and His might. “The thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14); “The God of glory thundereth” (Ps 29:3). God’s foes were “visited of Jehovah of hosts with thunder” (Isaiah 29:6). Thunder was regarded as the voice of God “God thundereth with the voice of his excellency” (Job 37:4), and God spoke to Jesus in the thunder (John 12:29).
“And there was opened the temple of God that is in heaven; and there was seen in his temple the ark of his covenant; and there followed lightnings, and voices, and thunders, and an earthquake, and great hail.”
represents great strength, boldness and bravery. Lions are mentioned in the Bible for their strength (Judges 14:18), boldness (2 Samuel 17:10), ferocity (Psalms 7:2), and stealth (Psalm 10:9; Lamentations 3:10). It is said of certain of David’s warriors (1 Chronicles 12:8) that their “faces were like the faces of lions.” David’s enemy (Psalm 17:12) “is like a lion that is greedy of his prey.” “The king’s wrath is as the roaring of a lion” (Proverbs 19:12). God in His wrath is “unto Ephraim as a lion, and as a young lion to the house of Judah” (Hosea 5:14). “The devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
were a symbol of permanence and unmovable strength. They represented the very foundation of the earth. To the Biblical writers they are symbols of eternity (Genesis 49:26; Deuteronomy 33:15; Job 15:7; Habakkuk 3:6). They are strong and stedfast, but they too are the creation of God, and they manifest His power (Psalms 18:7; 97:5; Isaiah 40:12; 41:15; 54:10; Jeremiah 4:24; Nahum 1:5; Habakkuk 3:6). Daniel called God the “holy Mountain” in 9:20.
Seen in Revelation 7:9, this is an Old Testament symbol taken from the Feast of Tabernacles and represents the joy resulting from deliverance and the peace which comes from assurance of future preservation. The feast of the tabernacles was the most joyous of all Jewish festivals. This feast occurred in the fall of the year after the harvests of fields and fruits. It followed the annual atonement when the sacrifices were offered for the sins of the people (Leviticus 23:26-32, 39-44). On the first day of this week, the people were to take the branches of palm trees and boughs of other trees, and “rejoice before Jehovah your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:30).
represents hope or mercy. God used a rainbow to signify He would never again destroy the earth with a flood in Genesis 9:13-17. God told Noah that when he saw the rainbow, he “will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.” The foundation for the interpretation of the bow in this way seems to be that while His bow is hung in the sky God must be at peace with His people. The glory of God is likened to “the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain” (Ezekiel 1:28).
In the tradition of the early Jewish people, the sea represented uncontrollable chaos. The sea represented something that could appear calm but from which could come terrible storms and unpredictable bad circumstances. The sea came to signify the powers of evil and the powers of darkness.
represents that the item under question belongs to the one who sealed the item (2 Corinthians 1:22). In some instances a seal is used to indicate that which is hidden from view as in the sealed scroll in Revelation 5:1-4.
was a old testament symbol for judgment. Seen in Revelation 14:14-19. Explained in Joel 3:13; “Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe: come, get you down; for the press is full, the fats overflow; for their wickedness is great.”
Star or stars:
Occurring fourteen times in Revelation represented a major ruler or authority. In Isaiah 13:9-11 we read of God coming in judgment on the evil world. He says that the “stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light:” (Isaiah 13:10). The stars are not literally going to stop giving light, obviously the rulers or authorities are in view here. This same imagery is used by Jesus when warning His disciples of the impending destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24:29.
Represents something from which emanates power, authority and majesty. It symbolizes:
(1) The exalted position of earthly kings, rulers, judges, etc., their majesty and power (of kings: Genesis 41:40; 1 Kings 2:19; Job 36:7)
(2) The majesty and power of God as the true king of Israel; He “is enthroned above the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4); Solomon’s throne is really God’s throne (1 Chronicles 29:23).
(3) The rule of Jesus in everlasting glory and righteousness. He “shall rule upon his throne” (Zechariah 6:13)
(4) The matchless glory, power and absolute sovereignty of God (and Christ); Micaiah “saw God sitting on his throne” (1 Kings 22:19). Isaiah and Ezekiel had similar visions (Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:26); compare also Daniel 7:9 and Revelation 4:2 (and often); in trying to depict the incomparable greatness of the King of kings, the Bible tells us that His throne is in heaven (Psalms 11:4, etc.) and, moreover, that heaven itself is His throne (Isaiah 66:1; Matthew 5:34).
“And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder…” (Revelation 14:2). Thunder signifies authority, power and volume. “Lo, these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand” (Job 26:14). See also Exodus 19:16.
was used as a symbol for announcing important events or actions. In Revelation 1:10 Jesus was said to have a voice “as of a trumpet”. It was clear, it was audible, easy to hear and it signified a call to attention. Something important is about to be spoken. “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice” (Exodus 19:19). The first century Christians familiar with Moses and the reception of the Levitical law would associate the sound of a trumpet as heralding the voice of God.
are an Old Testament symbol which was symbolic of the action of God or divine retribution. See Jeremiah 4:11-12;18:17;49:32,36; Ezekiel 5:2; 12:14; Psalm 106:27; Job 38:24; Isaiah 41:16. As the wind is invisible and effects things, God is likewise invisible and effects things on earth. Passages such as John 3:3-8, Revelation 7:1 and Isaiah 29:6 support this. In Exodus 10:13,19; 14:21; 15:8,10, we see God using wind in bringing judgment on Egypt.
was an old testament figure of a method of punishment by God where He was said to tread His enemies out in the winepress of His wrath. “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment” (Isaiah 63:3).