Understanding the Numerical Symbolism in Revelation
With symbolic language, words visualize something other than what their literal definition is to people familiar with the imagery. Words with symbolic meanings are used to paint a picture on the imaginations or convey a meaning shrouded in obscurity. By using this form of communication, God was able to express what He wanted the first Christians to know while keeping the meaning of his message hidden from those who would condemn the Christians because of it.
There is symbolic language throughout the scriptures both Old Testament and New. By familiarizing oneself with the symbolism in other parts of the Bible and applying the meaning of that imagery to its corresponding use in Revelation, one can begin to unravel the cryptic meaning and gain an understanding of what God was communicating to His people. People who were not Christians would have little to no understanding of what the symbolic language meant while Christians who were familiar with and had access to the scriptures and studied them had the key to solving the mysteries of the Revelation right within their hands all the time. Today, we have the same scriptures to draw upon so we can understand what God was communicating to them. So with that said, we’ll begin a study of what the symbolic language meant to the first readers of the letter while keeping in mind that God wrote them a letter he meant for them to understand and whatever that message meant to them is what it must mean today.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that even though Revelation is “signified” or “symbolized” (Revelation 1:1) that does not mean that every single usage of a number or an object which has a symbolic meaning attached to it necessarily demands that it must carry the symbolic meaning. This is where it gets interesting and there is no perfect system I know of for deciding whether or not something is to be taken literally or symbolically. There are some guidelines I use to help me along and while they are applicable in most instances, they cannot be considered an infallible system for interpretation. The basic guidelines I use are:
- Does it force something into a literal reality something that could not possibly be? There are no animals in existence that have 7 crowned heads and ten horns (Revelation 12:3)
- Does a literal understanding cause a direct conflict with God’s word? There can not be a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on earth when scripture plainly tells us that the earth will be destroyed the next time Jesus comes (2 Peter 3:10-12, Hebrews 12:25-27).
- Are we literalizing one element amidst a whole host of obviously figurative objects or numbers? An angel with a figurative set of keys and a figurative chain is going to come down and bind Satan, represented by a figurative dragon and imprison him for a literal thousand years? Picking one element out of a figurative scene and literalizing it is not going to be the most logical form of interpretation. However…
- The language is not always exclusively literal or symbolic. Sometimes it bears elements of both. “And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings” (Revelation 17:12). The Roman Empire was a provincial government and at the time of the writing of Revelation it really did have ten imperial provinces each one with its own ruler. So one must keep in mind that there are occasions of literal and symbolic language in the same context.
- The symbolic animals and some objects are for the most part consistent. For instance, the dragon always represents Satan no matter where he is mentioned in Revelation. The four beasts around the throne of God introduced in Revelation 4:6 are the same as the four beasts spoken of again in Revelation 5:6; 5:14; 6:6; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; and 19:4. So when one determines what the 4 beasts are, they can be reasonably assured that this will apply consistently throughout the rest of the book. This can be also be applied to the 24 elders around the throne of God. There are exceptions, for instance candlesticks, which are introduced in Revelation 1:12, explained in Revelation 1:20 and meaning something different in Revelation 11:4. The radiant woman in Revelation 12 is certainly not the same thing as the scarlet woman in Revelation 17.
- Sometimes Revelation is its own best interpreter. It is important not to get lost in the imagery and overlook something significant in the text. For instance in Revelation 17 we are introduced to a woman who is described as the “mother of harlots”. John reveals a whole host of her undesirable characteristics and qualities and then at the end of the chapter in verse 18 identifies her as the “great city that reigneth over the kings of the earth.” There are several other instances where the imagery is explained to John as in (Revelation 1:20). Attention to the text is key.
- Don’t get caught up in the symbolism and let it obscure the meaning of the overall message. Often times symbolism is used to make a tremendous impression of the things being discussed.
- And finally, we must have a clear understanding of precisely who the villains of Revelation are. Once we have determined who the enemies of God and His children are, we can match the characteristics of the symbolic villains in the Revelation to their counterparts in history.
So with these basic guidelines established we’ll begin a study of what the symbolic terms in Revelation meant to the first readers. In the end, we will all have to agree that there is no definitive system in place for the interpretation of the symbolic language and we need to bear in mind that it was purposefully written this way in order to mask its true message from the oppressors of the first readers. The language is chosen to appeal largely to the imagination of the reader. There will be times when we are going to be faced with things like gold crowned locusts, shaped like horses with men’s faces, women’s hair, lion’s teeth, wings and scorpion’s tails (Revelation 9:3-10), and we’ll just have to step back, look at the big picture and remember that the basic message of the Revelation is: God is running the show, Jesus is our champion, the good guys win everything and the bad guys lose it all.
First of all, we’re going to look at the numbering system and what meanings the Jewish Christians associated with certain numbers. Revelation is full of numbers so a study of the symbolic meanings these numbers had for the first readers will help us to correctly understand what the message to them was all about.
The number 1 in a symbolic sense represented the idea of unity or oneness. For example in Revelation 17:13 we read “These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast.” Obviously those in view here did not all literally share the same literal mind. The use of the number one here represented in the minds of the first reader the idea of unity. The scriptures are full of references to the “oneness” or “unity” of the Godhead. Jesus quoted, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). See also John 17:11, John 17:21, Romans 15:6, 1 John 5:7.
In Revelation the number 2 is used twelve times in the King James version. In other scripture as well as Revelation The number two symbolically represents strength and confirmation. Notice Revelation 11:3-4, “And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.” Looking in other scripture we see that “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). The Mosaic law required the testimony of two or more witnesses before one could be convicted of a crime (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; 2 Corinthians 13:1). Jesus sent out His disciples “two and two” (Luke 10:1).
In Revelation the number 3 is used eleven times. This number carried the symbolic meaning of God or the perfect divine. There are three persons in the Godhead – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19, Mark 1:9-11). Three angels were sent by God to pronounce “woe” to the earth (Revelation 8:13). God used three plagues against some of mankind (Revelation 9:18). When the great city was destroyed it was broken into three parts, which symbolized to the minds of the first readers that God was behind these events.
The number 3 1/2 appears in Revelation in a variety of forms. It is half of 7 which symbolizes the perfection of God on earth. We will discuss the symbolic meaning of the number 7 in detail later. The number 3 1/2 symbolizes that which is incomplete. Since seven is complete, then three and one-half is incomplete and represents something indefinite. This number appears disguised in different forms in the Revelation. In Revelation 11:2 it is represented as forty two months, which is 3 1/2 years. In Revelation 12:6 it appears as 1260 days which is also 3 1/2 years. In Revelation 12:14 it appears as “time and times and half a time”. This is undoubtedly an indefinite period of time. 1 time and/plus 2 times, and/plus half a time is 3 1/2 times. In Daniel 7:25 we read almost the exact same wording when he is prophesying about the Roman Empire, “and they [the saints] shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time.” All of these forms of 3 1/2 are symbolic of an indefinite period of time and a time of uncertainty and unrest such as we find in Revelation 11:11 and context when, from the perspective of God’s enemies, it looked like the forces of evil had won and Christianity had been utterly stamped out. But as we will see in future studies, this was only for an indefinite period of time.
In Revelation the number 4, used thirty times, was symbolic of the world in which we live. In the old testament scriptures, four was used to depict the “four corners of the earth” in Isaiah 11:12 which contextually meant the whole earth. The words “four winds” are found in Jeremiah 49:36, Ezekiel 37:9, Daniel 7:2; 8:8; 11:4, Zechariah 2:6. Jesus used these words in Matthew 24:31 to refer to the entire earth. In Jeremiah 49:36 the words “four quarters” are used to describe what was going to happen to the nation of Elam when it was prophesied they would be scattered across the earth. So it is apparent that to the readers of the Revelation, when they saw the number four used, they would then associate it with all life on this earth. In Revelation 4:6, all of created life is represented by four living creatures. In Revelation 7:1, four angels stand “at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth.” In Revelation 20:8, all of the people on earth are represented by the nations “in the four corners of the earth.”
The number 7 came to symbolize the meaning of totality or completeness associated with God’s authority on the earth. It is believed by many that the number 7 is a product of adding the number 3 which represented the complete divine, to the number 4 which symbolized the whole earth. Solomon wrote in Proverbs 30:18-29 that there were three things which were good and wonderful and go well, but then there are four things upon the earth that are set in contrast to the things described by the number three. Solomon repeated this imagery four times in these verses of scripture. In the first two chapters of Amos we read of God’s prophecy of wrath on Damascus, Tyrus, Edom, Moab and Judah. In every instance He used the words “for three transgression and for four”. It is obvious from a reading of the book of Amos that the transgression of these nations were far more than seven. This is an obvious symbolic use of the number seven arrived at by adding three and four. The sins of these nations were complete, being against the divine and on earth.
Naaman dipped in the Jordan river seven times before anything happened (2 Kings 5:14). The Israelites marched around Jericho seven times before the walls fell (Joshua 6:20). The Israelite tabernacle worship was replete with repetitive rituals done seven times, for example, blood was sprinkled on the alters seven times (Leviticus 8:11). In the KJV the word seven appears 448 times in all. It is very obvious that this number held a very significant meaning in the minds of the Israelites. David wrote “The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.” (Psalms 12:6). Revelation was addressed to “the seven churches of Asia.” (Revelation 1:4). God most certainly had more than seven churches in a land mass the size of Asia at that time but He used the number seven to represent them all including the rest of the churches throughout the earth. When Revelation 5:1 speaks of a scroll with seven seals, the first readers immediately thought it was perfectly and totally sealed by the authority of God.
The number 6 came to represent something that fell short of the perfection of seven. The definition of sin is to miss the mark, or to fall short. In Proverbs 6:16 we read “These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:” Solomon goes on to list seven things that God hates. What is important to keep in mind is that God purposefully associated the number six with the sins He hated the most regardless of how many of them there actually were. The number six was used to indicate something evil, as this number fell short of the perfect number seven. The saints of the first century considered this number to be evil and to represent that which is evil and when they encountered this number it would cause them to associate evil with whatever the number was represented with. Therefore when a man is identified by the number 666 as in Revelation 13:18, he is understood in the minds of the first century readers as being an exceedingly evil individual. Especially when one notices that the number for the evil man is used three times which means the divine. This would seem to suggest a person of an exceedingly evil nature, who being in a position of great power and authority, considered himself to be divine but fell short.
The number 10 represented human completeness (fullness or power). In the ancient times, life was difficult and making a living for one’s family was a constant struggle not to mention all the wars that ensued along the way. It is that way in many places on earth today. It was not at all uncommon to see people who were missing fingers or entire limbs from their bodies. Someone who had all their fingers and toes, ten each, were considered to be complete and the number ten came to represent human completeness. Jesus told the church in Smyrna that she would be persecuted for ten days (Revelation 2:10). This period of time symbolically means for a complete period of time but they were not told exactly how long that period of time would be. The number is not be understood as a literal period of ten days. In Revelation 12 we see the dragon appearing with ten horns. The horn is a symbol of power and with the number ten, this dragon which represents Satan, had complete power over the people of the earth.
The number 12 came to represent organized religion or religious completeness. There were twelve Patriarchs (Genesis 35:23-26). Each patriarch fathered one of twelve tribes. There were twelve original apostles (Luke 6:14-16). Judas who betrayed Jesus, fell by transgression and was replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:26). These twelve apostles were responsible for the beginning the preaching of the kingdom. Whenever the first century Christians heard the number twelve they would instantly associate it with the patriarchs or the apostles who were both highly significant in both Judaism and Christianity. In Revelation 12:1 we see a woman with “a crown of twelve stars on her head” which symbolically represented all of God’s people.
The number 1000 is prominent in the Revelation. Symbolic numbers were multiplied by themselves or by other symbolic numbers in order to add emphasis or give the allusion of larger numbers than would be evident. For instance a thousand, being a multiple of 10 would carry the significance of the number 10 but would obviously represent a larger sum than just the number ten. The number 1000 is ten multiplied by itself three times, which means God is behind it. So when the 1st century Christians saw the thousand years in the Revelation, they would realize that it meant a large span of time sufficient to complete the divine will of God.
We also see the number 12,000 in the Revelation. This is the number 1000 which represents ultimate divine completeness multiplied by the number 12 which was symbolic for organized religion on earth. Each tribe of the Israelites were represented by 12,000 individuals. This would be the complete number of all the saved members of each tribe which surely meant more than a literal 12,000 in number.
The 144,000 is mentioned in Revelation 7:4 is twelve multiplied by itself for emphasis and then multiplied by the number for ultimate completeness through God. This number is not in any way literal but simply represents the total number of the saved in the kingdom of God. Mentioned again in Revelation 14:1-3 we see that this number of people represented those “which were redeemed from the earth”. In Revelation 14:4 we see read, “these were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.” Obviously being the first fruits in the first century, there were going to be more to come making a literal interpretation of this number impossible.