Interpreting Revelation

Chapter 4 – Rules for Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature

A literal hermeneutic unlocks biblical mysteries.

Apocalyptic literature is catastrophic in nature associated with the end times; the end of the world as we know it. Is it fiction or fact? To uncover the truth, application of the biblical laws of truth and their ramifying sublaws for the specific discipline under investigation is obligatory. In the discipline of theology, those sublaws are summarized in the literal historical hermeneutic (rules for accurate interpretation). Even in apocalyptic literature such as the book of Revelation, the literal hermeneutic takes every word literally in context unless it would be absurd, break a law or sublaw of truth, or is already defined in the Bible.

Apocalyptic literature is arguably the most difficult literature in Scripture to interpret, especially discerning between literal and symbolic meanings for a word. God knew this and gave the apostle John a crash course in Apocalyptic Interpretation 101. In Revelation, Jesus was holding “stars” in His hands. What are they? real stars (concluding He controls the universe); round brilliant, fiery objects (concluding He can throw missiles); or bright lights (concluding He illuminates the world)? The true interpretation is not based on our own experiences. God tells us what the stars are: “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.”[1] Angels have human form.[2] His lesson is this: the symbol (star) does not indicate the shape, size, color, or physical appearance of the literal object it represents (an angel). The Bible will tell us the meaning. Jesus is the Lamb, but He does not have four legs. The Jews knew this because they were saturated with the Bible’s Old Testament (OT) language wherein stars represented angels.[3] Either the immediate context, or a word study from other biblical writers (other “eye-witnesses” such as prophets who heard God’s words directly) reveals the meaning.

            When we follow God’s laws of truth and the sublaws that emanate from them (the rules of hermeneutics), the result is the literal historical hermeneutic. Interpreting Revelation is easy with the literal hermeneutic. The literal hermeneutic takes every word literally in context unless it would be absurd, break a law or sublaw of truth, or is already defined in the Bible.

A Literal Hermeneutic

            There are four simple rules (based on the biblical laws of truth and sublaws; the basic rules of hermeneutics) for interpreting apocalyptic literature such as Revelation.[4] Their foundation is a literal hermeneutic.

            1. Every word or passage that can be taken literally will be taken literally.

                        For example, every fact provided in Scripture indicates that the seven churches of Revelation were seven historical churches during the first century. The first of the seven churches was Ephesus. John was writing to the Ephesians in Revelation. Ephesians is the first church in Revelation. Paul wrote to them in the book of Ephesians. Therefore, the seven churches are literal churches during the first century. Another interpretation holds that each church is an allegorical time period. This view requires multitudinous assumptions with numerous contradictions of certain facts given in all relevant passages. It cannot be true. Therefore, take everything literally, unless a literal interpretation would be absurd, contradicts Scripture, or breaks sound hermeneutical rules.

            2. When a literal interpretation would be absurd, the passage is metaphorical.

                        A literal interpretation is used for Revelation. “Literal” means that the passage is interpreted according to sound laws and rules for hermeneutics: literal objects are interpreted literally, absurd objects are metaphorical. (i.e. Jesus is the lamb. Since He does not have four legs; “lamb” is metaphorical.) “Hide me in the shadow of Your wings,” (Psa 17:8). It would be absurd to think that God has wings and is a bird. Therefore, “the shadow of Your wings” is metaphorical and (in the context) represents the loving protection of God.

            At the beginning of Revelation, God Himself gives instructions for interpreting apocalyptic literal: “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.”[5] Just as Jesus does not physically look like a lamb, so the true objects (angels and churches) do not look anything like their metaphorical representations (stars and lampstands). Metaphors provide deeper understanding on a level different from of the symbolic objects: “Lamb” represents the character and mission of Jesus, not His appearance.

            3. Any interpretation of apocalyptic literature that breaks the laws of truth or basic rules of hermeneutics is unreliable.

            4. “Every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” is important for an accurate interpretation (Matt 4:4).

            5. Occam’s Razor says that the maximum of facts with the minimum of assumptions gives the highest probability of accuracy.

            When an interpretation is based on ignoring facts given by Scripture, contradicting words in Scripture, twisting, redefining, adding excessive assumptions, creating meanings foreign to the Bible, subtracting words . . . , it has a high probability of error. Occam’s Razor maximizes facts and minimizes assumptions. Thus, the simplest interpretation (based on facts) has a higher probability of accuracy than complex interpretations (incorporating complex assumptions).

The 144,000 in Revelation

            For example, in Dr. Oral Collins’ book, The Final Prophecy of Jesus: An Introduction, Analysis, and Commentary on the Book of Revelation, he considers Revelation to be “drama”; primarily symbolic in style.[6] He rejects the literal, face-value reading of many verses. Therefore, many words are fluff (inconsequential to interpretation) used only for dramatic effect. One topic in Revelation that should be simple to interpret to the point of boring (but please stay with me) is who are the 144,000? (If we cannot rightly interpret this simple idea, we will be lost in the complex symbolisms of Revelation.[7])

            There are only two passages in the Bible on the 144,000 (Rev 7:4-8 and 14:1-5) providing a total of 70 facts on the subject. Collins accepts 17 of these facts (25%) and the rest he contradicts, ignores, or twists as fluff (75%). His conclusion was that the 144,000 will be all Christians (men, women, and children) across all nations from all times. He believes this was the church’s traditional interpretation. Sounds good, but contradicting 75% of the biblical facts on a biblical topic is not good: first, because it leads to error and second, because it teaches poor thinking. Those 70 facts fall into over 10 categories. Here is a chart that clarifies the literal words of Scripture compared to Collins’ new view of those words based on a vast complexity of underlying assumptions he uses to reject literal meanings:

          Scripture says:                           Collins says:

            Collins used “a drama method” cherry picking his facts then remolding them to fit his predetermined conclusion. The conclusion was a creation from imagination backed by ecclesiastic authority figures and complex, convoluted, conflicting reasoning to justify a meaning that no average Christian would ever see in this passage by him- or herself. His conclusion is not in the two passages on the subject or anywhere else in Scripture on the 144,000. There is no scriptural support. You have to be taught it from an authority figure, believe that authority, reject numerous facts given on the topic in the Bible, then superimpose his reasoning on top of the simple words of the Bible, in order to choose his conclusion.

            (Wait until you find yourself doing this with a beloved, popular, powerful, prestigious church leader(s), and then one day you read a Bible passage for the umpteenth time and suddenly–for the first time–it dawns on you that Jesus’ words contradict the words of this greatly admired authority figure. I went years believing three (just 3!) words commonly taught (on another secondary issue), believed, and followed from the greatest to the least in church, until one day I read Jesus’ simple words as they were written; words which clearly and directly contradicted those three words of human authorities that could not be found anywhere in Scripture. It took me about a year—a year!—of reading over and over and over the words of Jesus to try to twist, ignore, supplant, redefine, avalanche the literal words in the Bible with the complex church-created doctrines so that I could keep peace . . . until in time, I started reading the three words of Jesus in context, according to sound hermeneutical rules in an in depth topical study across Scripture, . . . and finally I gave in: Jesus was right. People who contradicted Jesus were wrong. “Buy truth, do not sell it,” (Proverbs 23:23) Boy, was I going to pay a high price for that truth! It took me a year to change, so I understood when no one else wanted to change; the wrong interpretation was a lot happier and the right interpretation was a lot more painful. But those three words, when we get them wrong are dangerous, deceptive, and deadly; eventually, many people (deceived in pseudo-happiness) will suffer and die needlessly when they get these three words wrong. Any time we contradict Jesus, we weaken in soul and flounder in harm’s way. Today, I look back in amazement–why did the church and I make it so complicated? If I had just believed Jesus’ literal, explicit, clear words from a face-value reading from the beginning–like a child–it would have been a simple stroll in the light.)

            The “puzzle method” for interpreting Scripture carefully pulls out each fact then like pieces to a puzzle fits each and every one into the big picture–the final interpretation. You don’t create the final interpretation, you discover it. When we do this with the 70 facts given to us by Scripture, the 144,000 are exactly who Scripture says they are: 144,000 Jewish Christian men (Christians because they follow Jesus wherever He goes and have been purchased by His blood, Rev 14:4) who return from heaven with Jesus to rule with Him on Mount Zion. Out of the facts emanates the conclusion: They are His central government for global rule with headquarters in Jerusalem. The rest of the believers from every nation coming from heaven and raptured from earth will spread out across the earth as His eventual network government (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26; 20:6). That is the simple, logical, and reasonable interpretation following sound hermeneutics using ALL 70 facts with integrity (no contradictions, leaving words out, changing meanings, etc.) given in Scripture on the topic leading logically to the resulting conclusion.

Drying the Euphrates River and Armageddon

            Let’s take one more example; again, nothing too emotional. Consider one verse in Revelation: “the drying up of the Euphrates River to prepare the way for the kings of the east” (Rev 16:12) for “Har-Magedon” (aka Armageddon, Rev 16:16). Collins says that this river does not refer to a river, nor to the drying up of water, but is a “symbol for the country associated with that river.” So he links the river to “the ‘drying up’ of the Turkish Empire” by 1917 or 1918.[9] A thin thread of conjecture connects the Bible to this historical event without any contextual evidence. Again, the simple, face-value reading of the Bible is rejected for an exotic interpretation that only brilliant men can come up with. The reformers’ doctrine of perspicuity (clarity) is lost. No Christian reading this for her- or himself could ever come up with this interpretation on their own.

            On Har-Magedon (Armageddon), the literal, grammatical-historical hermeneutic incorporates the facts as presented in the Bible. So the Euphrates River is the Euphrates River (Rev 16:12). God says He dries it up to allow great armies from the east to invade Jerusalem against Jesus Christ initiating the war of Har-Magedon (Rev 16:16). This is in context. The Euphrates and Har-Magedon are only four verses apart in the same passage.

            Since the Bible says that the river will dry up, then the literal waters desiccate. Science (the study of God’s creation) can reveal if the biblical prophecy is beginning to occur. Sure enough, today the Euphrates is in the process of drying up for a number of geo-political–as well as meteorological–reasons causing much stress between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq all of whom need the water.[10]  (We will go into more details on the Euphrates River in Chapter 11–Terrestrial Waters in Revelation and Science.)

           All truth is God’s truth. Commence with the Bible (God’s word), and if the topic literally speaks–in context–about the land, the sea, the waters, or the sky–anything on this planet–then take a look at science (God’s creation) to investigate the possibility of supporting evidence to determine if that prophecy is in the process of being fulfilled today. It is.

            Revelation is not that hard to interpret when “the magic, mysticism, and drama” from imagination is taken out, and the simple reading by the average Christian using a literal hermeneutic is left in. Jesus said that these truths “have been hidden . . . from the wise and intelligent and have been revealed to infants,” (Luke 10:21). Everything that can be taken literally is taken literally. Anything that would be absurd, contradict Scripture, or break other hermeneutical rules (if taken literally) is symbolic/metaphorical/figurative. Even children can get this.

                [1] Rev 1:20.

                [2] Ezek 1:5; 10:20.

                [3] Isa 14:13

                [4] Ezek 1; 10; 37:1-14; Jdgs 9.

                [5] Rev 1:20.

                [6] Oral Collins, The Final Prophecy of Jesus: An Introduction, Analysis, and Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007) 17.  

                [7] Luke 16:10.

                [8] Collins, 160.  Rev 7:9, 14, “A great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes.” Collins states, “The setting of the vision here is ‘Mount Zion,’ the earthly Jerusalem” (329). Given the small size of the city of Jerusalem, placing countless multi-millions in this setting is absurd. The 144,000 in Jerusalem is reasonable. The 144,000 do not stay in Jerusalem for just an hour, they are permanently assigned to close proximity to the Lord Jesus (Rev 14:4); since He will rule the world from Jerusalem; they will rule under Him in Jerusalem.

                [9] Ibid., 376.

                [10] The intervention of God including miracles can either be instantaneous (turning water into wine) or progressive (the three-year drought during the days of Elijah). Progressive miracles are God’s mercy giving time for believers to prepare and unbelievers to repent. 

                [11] “The Four Apocalyptic Horses” by Jeronym Pelikovsky on “Desolate Road” by Matt Heinrichs on “End of the World Soldier” by Comfreak on “City Explosion Building on Lake” Icheinfach on; Apocalypse. (C.f. Rafido Digital Art ( February 15, 2012. Image “Child’s Hand Pointing to Words in the Bible as She or He Reads” by ambermb from Pixabay. (Pixabay: Bible study, Bible, hand, child, open Bible)