USE OF SYMBOLS
The Book of Revelation is a series of visions that John saw, with the messages encapsulated in dramatic images and symbols. Symbols convey a rich, multifaceted message that touches both the intellect and the emotions. But symbols must be interpreted correctly, or the entire meaning is misconstrued. Some commentators have assigned meanings to symbols based on logic, imagination and the preconceived ideas of their own prophetic interpretations. It is important to let the Bible interpret its own symbols, and there are some simple principles which apply specifically to apocalyptic prophecies.
First of all, the interpretation of a symbol in the Book of Revelation should be found, whenever possible, in the Book of Revelation itself. For example, in Revelation 17:1 an angel said to John, “come here, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters.” In verse 15 the interpretation for water is given: “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues” In Revelation 12:15 water is again used as a symbol—“the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman.” Instead of guessing or searching elsewhere in the Bible for the meaning of this water, we should use the definition in Revelation—the “serpent” pursued the “woman” with “peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues.”
Often the symbols are not clearly interpreted in the Book of Revelation. The next place to look is in other apocalyptic prophecies, such as Daniel or Zechariah. For example, in Revelation chapter 13 John saw a beast like a leopard. Although Jeremiah used the leopard as an example of how impossible it is for us to change our sinful characters (“can the leopard change his spots?” Jeremiah 13:23), Jeremiah would not be the first place to look for the meaning of apocalyptic symbols. The apocalyptic prophecy of Daniel 7 portrayed a leopard which symbolized the ancient Greek Empire under Alexander the Great (Daniel 7:6, see appendix 11), and this is where we should start in our attempt to understand the leopard of Revelation 13.
If a symbol cannot be found in the apocalyptic books the search should be expanded to the rest of the Bible, starting with the Old Testament since these were the scriptures of John’s time. This often results in multiple meanings, in which case the context of the passage in Revelation should be matched as closely as possible to the context of the Old Testament passages. It is also important to consider all the texts which use the symbol and try to find a consensus or underlying theme, rather than picking out an isolated example that fits with a pet theory.