Wednesday, 02 April 2014 00:00

The Symbolism of Literal Apocalysm


KV Williams once said, "If people could understand the symbolism, they could understand Revelation." I agree with this sentiment. The key to understanding all Hebrew apocalyptic literature is the symbolism. We have traced Revelation's flow and the overall theme of God's judgment on Old Covenant Israel. In the first three chapters we saw John's specific warning to seven Asia Minor (Turkey) churches that the end of the Old Covenant, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and all the fulfillment of all the prophecies in Revelation was "soon" and "near" (Revelation 1:1, 3). In Revelation 4, John sees God seated in judicial capacity on His throne. In Revelation 5, God hands the crucified Messiah (cp. Rev. 1:7; 5:5, 9, 12) his divorce decree against Israel. In Chapters 6-19 (with some dramatic interruptions), he focuses on the capital punishment of God's Old Testament wife for harlotrous adultery (stoning). In Chapters 20-22, we see God's bride (the church) coming down from heaven to take the place of God's judged first wife.

  1. The Symbolism of Falling Mountains and Hiding Caves in Revelation 6:14-17
    One of the more dramatic symbolic images is the shaking of all the mountains as God's wrath falls. "And the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains" (Revelation 6:14-15). What could John mean? How could it be fulfilled soon?

    Josephus writes, "Now Vespasian was very desirous of demolishing Jotapata, for he had gotten intelligence that the greatest part of the enemy had retired thither, and that it was, on other accounts, a place of great security to them. Accordingly, he sent both foot-men and horsemen to level the road, which was mountainous and rocky, not without difficulty to be traveled over by footmen, but absolutely impracticable for horsemen. Now these workmen accomplished what they were about in four days' time, and opened a broad way for the army." The attack on Jotapata, called Yodfat in the Bible (and modern times) was the beginning of the Jewish and Roman War (A.D. 67-73).

    The Romans lay siege to the city for 47 days. During the siege heroic battles were waged between the Jewish defenders of the city, aided mainly by courage and resourcefulness, and experienced, well equipped Roman legionnaires. Eventually, the Jews could not prevent Roman victory. The city fell and its inhabitants were slaughtered. Josephus and his forty men hid in a cave until the Romans discovered their hideout. According to Josephus, in order to avoid capture by the Romans, he and his men decided to commit suicide by drawing lots and killing one another. Cunningly, Josephus managed to remain the last man alive and gave himself to the Romans. He became a historian.

    As the Romans marched south through the valley of Jezreel (also known as the valley of Megiddo), they made their way to Jerusalem to destroy the Temple and raze the city. The Jews fled to caves. Josephus records many instances showing how the caves and caverns were used by the Jews in attempts to escape the wrath of the Roman armies. He writes, "And on this day it was that the Romans slew all the multitude that appeared openly; but on the following days they searched the hiding-places, and fell upon those that were under ground, and in the caverns" (Works of Josephus).

  2. The Dividing the City of Jerusalem into Three Parts in Revelation 16:17-21
    "And the great city was split into three parts." When Rome attacked Jerusalem, the city was in strife. Josephus described the state of Jerusalem when the Romans began attacking it. "It so happened that the sedition at Jerusalem was revived, and parted into three factions, and they fought each other."

    Josephus continues, "And now there were three treacherous factions in the city, the one parted from the other. Eleazar and his party, that kept the sacred first-fruits, came against John in their cups. Those that were with John plundered the populace, and went out with zeal against Simon. This Simon had his supply of provisions from the city, in opposition to the seditious (Josephus, War 5:1-4).

    Josephus laments the destructiveness of this three-fold faction: it was "a sedition begotten by another sedition, and to be like a wild beast grown mad, which, for want of food from abroad, fell now upon eating its own flesh." He esteems this division within Jerusalem "the beginning of the city's destruction." As John's prophecy expresses it: "And the great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell" (Revelation 16:19a). The tribulation John prophesied (A.D. 67) was fulfilled "soon."

  3. The Total Destruction of Jerusalem through Giant Hailstones in Revelation 16:21
    Revelation unfolds as a dramatic covenant lawsuit against Israel for her spiritual adultery against God. In God's law, adultery was punished by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:21). John writes: "And huge hailstones, about one hundred pounds (Greek "talents") each, came down from heaven upon men; and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, because its plague was extremely severe" (Revelation 16:21). Once again Josephus provides us with historical material that helps explain this vision. He mentions the Roman catapult siege of Jerusalem, specifically highlighting the enormous size of the stones (emphases mine): "The engines, that all the legions had ready prepared for them, were admirably contribed; but still more extraordinary ones belonged to the tenth legion: those that threw darts and those that threw stones were more forcible and larger than the rest, by which they not only repelled the excursions of the Jews, but drove those away that were upon the walls also. Now the stones that were cast were of the weight of a talent (Greek, talantiaia) - Josephus, Wars.

  4. The Flowing Blood and the Symbolic Nature of It in Revelation 14:17-20
    Scripture frequently symbolizes Israel as God's vine (Psalm 80:8; Isaiah 5:17; Jeremiah 2:21; 12:10; Ezekiel 17:2, 6; 19:11, 10; Matthew 21:33-40). John follows this Old Testament pattern here in Revelation. Where is this wine press that was trodden "outside the city?" And how can this enormous blood-flow apply to the events of A.D. 70? Do we believe blood actually flows two hundred miles (Greek, 1600 stadia)?

    Earlier we saw that John defines "the city" in Revelation as the place where Christ was crucified, i.e., Jerusalem (Revelation 11:8). This "harvest" occurs in "the earth," that is, in "the land" of Israel (Revelation 14:15-19; cp. Revelation 1:7) at the place where Jesus was crucified: "outside the city" (John 19:20; cp. Hebrews 13:11-13). All of this fits well with John's stated theme (Revelation 1:7). Interestingly, Israel's length as a Roman province was right at 1600 stadia. John's imagery suggests that Israel will suffer a bloodbath that runs throughout the land. Josephus reports that "the whole of the country through which they they had fled was filled with slaughter." It is impossible for blood to literally flow to the bridles of horses (blood coagulates and seeps into the ground). The meaning is symbolical. The judgment is wide and deep. Death is rampant. The entire nation of Israel will feel the judgment.

    The bloody carnage occurred not only through the length and breadth of the land (1600 stadia, or 200 miles), but on both sea and on land. This fits other images in Revelation, such as the sea becoming blood (Revelation 8:8; 16:3). John dramatically visualizes this as if blood were flowing to the depths of the bridles of horses. His imagery is stark -- and historical. The Slain Lamb (Revelation 5:5-8, 12) is pouring out his wrath (Revelation 6:16-17) upon those who crucified him (Revelation 1:7). Though the grand images in Revelation are not literal, they do portray historical events. The historical records of the Jewish War fulfill John's symbol. The events John foresaw were truly earth-shaking for the first century Jews and Christians, hence John's use of earth-shaking images (Kenneth Gentry).


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