|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 32, August 3 to August 9 2008|
Philip Edgecumbe Hughes was Visiting Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Associate Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. His other works include Theology of the English Reformers, Commentary on II Corinthians, But for the Grace of God, and Confirmation in the Church Today.
Those who insist on a literalistic principle of interpretation — though it is a principle to which even they find it impossible to adhere with consistency —object that "one thousand years" means what it says. If this is correct, then our understanding of Revelation 20 is clearly invalidated, because now nearly two millennia have passed by since Christ's ascension. But there is a variety of literary genres in the Bible — such as history, poetry, parable, and apocalyptic — and a proper respect for the text must take this consideration into account. To interpret literalistically what is intended symbolically cannot fail to do violence to the sacred text. Now the literary genre of the Revelation of John is that of apocalyptic, which accordingly by its very nature is a writing permeated with symbolical language. Occasionally, indeed, an interpretation is given of some of the symbolical elements of a vision, as, for example, where John describes the "one like a son of man" whom he saw standing in the midst of "seven golden lampstands" and holding in his right hand "seven stars" and the explanation is given that "the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches," though other details of the vision — such as the extreme whiteness of this "son of man's" hair and the likeness of his feet to "burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace" — are left for the reader to solve (Rev. 1:12-20). In the letters to the seven churches various blessings are promised to those who overcome: for example, that they will be given "some of the hidden manna," "a white stone," "the morning star," or will be made "pillars" in God's temple (2:17, 28; 3:12); but justice can be done to the text only if such terminology is understood symbolically. And this holds good for so much else in this book; though it is not necessary to assign a precise significance to every detail, since the effect is often cumulative, each particular contributing to the richness and splendor of the whole scene. Thus, we read of one seated on a throne who "appeared like jasper and carnelian" and that "round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald," while "before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God," and on either side of it are "four living creatures" with the distinctive features of a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle respectively, "each of them with six wings" and "full of eyes all round and within" (4:22ff.). In the same breath the glorified Redeemer is called "the Lion of the tribe of Judah" and "the Root of David" (5:5; cf. 22:16) ; but frequently this "Lion" is referred to as "the Lamb" (5:6, 8, 12, 13, etc.).
What could be more graphically symbolical than the "locusts" of chapter 9, which in appearance were "like horses arrayed for battle," with "what looked like crowns of gold on their heads," and with faces "like human faces" and hair "like women's hair" and "teeth like lions' teeth" and "scales like iron breastplates" and "tails like scorpions" and "stings" possessing "the power of hurting men for five months in their tails" (9:3ff.)? or, in chapter 12, the "great portent" of "a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars," and the further "portent" of "a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads" (12:1, 3)? or "the woman" portrayed in chapter 17 as "arrayed in purple and scarlet and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication," and written on her forehead "a name of mystery, ‘Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth's abominations'" (17:3ff.)? Like other apocalyptic books, the Revelation of John is full of the cryptic and mysterious language of symbolism. However much one may be committed to a literalistic principle of interpretation, there is no possibility that the key of literalism will open the secrets of such symbolism; and, in practice even if not in theory, this fact is universally recognized by exponents of this book.
This being so, it is true no less of the numbers of the Revelation which are an integral component of the book's symbolism. Most prominent of all is the number seven, which recurs throughout the book. Thus we read of seven churches and seven spirits (1:4, etc.), seven lampstands (1:12, etc.), seven stars (1:16, etc.), seven torches of fire (4:5), seven seals (5:1, etc.), the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes (5:6), seven angels and seven trumpets (8:2), seven thunders (10:3f.), seven angels with seven plagues (15:1ff.), seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God (15:7, etc.), and of the dragon and the beast, each of which has seven heads (12:3; 13:1, etc.). Of other numbers that are present it is sufficient to mention "the number of the beast" which is "a human number," namely, "six hundred and sixty-six," and which the reader "who has understanding" is invited to "reckon" or "work out" (13:18). This number is symbolical or it is nothing.
So also with the "thousands" of the book of Revelation. Mere consistency in interpretation demands that they too should be understood in a symbolical sense, whether it be the one hundred and forty-four thousand (or twelve times twelve thousand) who are sealed with the mark of God on their foreheads (7:2ff.; 14:1ff.), or the seven thousand who are killed in an earthquake (11:13), or the twelve thousand stadia which is the measure of the length, breadth, and height of the new Jerusalem (21:16), or the thousand years of chapter 20. As this is not intended to develop into a dissertation on the symbolism of numbers, we must be content to suggest here that this period of "one thousand years" symbolizes a period of time that is full but with limits which, in accordance with the sovereign will of God, are precisely defined, and that the fullness of this period of time coincides with the attainment of "the fullness of the Gentiles" and "the fullness of Israel," of which we have written above (pp. 89ff.). In other words, it is the period of these "last days" designated by God for the completion of all his purposes of grace and judgment; and it will be followed by the dawning of that day which has no evening, the unending sabbath of "the saints' everlasting rest." Such endless bliss it is beyond the power of number to symbolize.
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