The symbol can also point to the reality behind it (or in our earlier lessons: the symbol has a referent). For instance, wedding rings are not marriage, but they signify the promises and reality of the wedding and the corresponding marriage.
Symbols in the Old Testament
In the Bible we find symbols quite often. In the Old Testament, we find memorial stones placed on the ephod:
Or when Joshua led the people across the Jordan River:
So Joshua summoned the 12 men he had selected from the Israelites, one man for each tribe, and said to them, “Go across to the ark of the LORD your God in the middle of the Jordan. Each of you lift a stone onto his shoulder, one for each of the Israelite tribes, so that this will be a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ you should tell them, ‘The waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the LORD’s covenant. When it crossed the Jordan, the Jordan’s waters were cut off.’ Therefore these stones will always be a memorial for the Israelites.” (Joshua 4:4-7 HCSB)
The use of symbols increases in the prophetic writings, especially Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and Zechariah. In the Writings (last division of the Hebrew Scriptures), Daniel incorporates the most symbols, and especially as it looks toward the future.
Variety of Symbols
We notice that there is symbolism from all aspects of life (references in parentheses are to Revelation):
Animal Kingdom: various colored horses (6:2), lamb (5:6, etc.), lion (4:7), calf (4:7), leopard (13:2), bear (13:2), locust (9:3), scorpion (9:5), frog (16:13), eagle (4:7), vultures, fish of the sea.
Plant Kingdom: trees (8:7), herbs, grasses (8:7).
The sky, sea, earth, and agricultural operations all for part of the scenic, beautiful, yet at times horrifying images symbolizing what God intended. Figures move across the stage of Scripture arrayed in a variety of colors and designs; some with priestly garb, others in sackcloth.
Symbols in Revelation
By the time we get to Revelation, John sets his writing in the midst of many symbols. The strange and sometimes monstrous images suggest something far more than even simple narrative can achieve. Most of the images come from the OT.
Place names: Euphrates, Egypt, Sodom, Hill of Megiddo, Babylon, and Jerusalem.
Names of People: Balaam, Jezebel
Concepts: Tree of Life, Book of Life, Water of Life, Two Witnesses
Other terms take on added or even new meanings: The Lord designated as the Lion and the Lamb, the Root of David (root of Jesse in Isaiah 11).
One of the key points is to realize that while the same name may be used in Revelation as in the OT, the referent (what it is pointing to may not be the same). For instance, in the OT Babylon has the referent the city/nation that looms over the horizon and where the two southern tribes are exiled. But in the NT we find Peter using Babylon in reference to something entirely different (1 Peter 5:13).
To all of this, John adds his own (through the Holy Spirit) symbols and meanings that are unique to his writings. The woman with the Child can find no parallel in Biblical or extra-Biblical literature. Also unique are the Seal openings, the Trumpet blasts, the outpouring of Bowls. While the idea of a millennium was around it had not been seen as a symbol of spiritual triumph.
Another caution. Some of what is written is not symbolic, but rather a use of images to heighten the coloring of scenes and add vividness to what we witness through John’s writing. And in some cases symbols are interpreted for the reader:
1:20 “As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” (NAS)
4:5 Flashes of lightning and rumblings of thunder came from the throne. Seven fiery torches were burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God. (HCSB)
5:6 Then I saw One like a slaughtered lamb standing between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent into all the earth. (HCSB)
17:9 “Here is the mind with wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.” (HCSB)
17:12 The 10 horns you saw are 10 kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they will receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. (HCSB)
17:15 He also said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute was seated, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and languages.” (HCSB)
But even with the aid to interpreting the symbol, we still have more problems: what is the referent in each case?
More to come…