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2015 © by Rich Kelsey, all rights reserved.

 

Understanding the Book of Revelation — Rich Kelsey

 Orange Morning Sun

A trend which began with two bestselling books[i] on Bible prophecy way back in the 1970s has continued to impact the Christian world to this day. It started when Hal Lindsey[ii] and co-author Carole C. Carlson explained that the Apostle John, who wrote the Book of Revelation, was limited to using the language of his day. And, since John had no concept of future things, like nuclear weapons, he described a hydrogen bomb exploding over one of earth's oceans as,

"a burning mountain being thrown into the sea."[iii]

Hal's works made a case for inserting 20th century concepts into the 1st century Book of Revelation. Using this principle, Lindsey also suggested that the Smoke Locusts of Revelation 9 could be an advanced kind of helicopter:[iv] 

"And out of the smoke locusts came down upon the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads." (Rev. 9:3-4)

Lindsey's approach made Revelation's images much easier to understand; as a result, millions of people bought into his method of interpretation. And, while the memories of Hal Lindsey's early books may have faded with time, his general ideas concerning Revelation are still fresh in people's minds.   

Yet, there are problems with maintaining that what John saw in his visions and recorded in Revelation are descriptions of hydrogen bombs and helicopters: The concept runs contrary to the meaning of symbolic language used throughout scripture.

     Symbolic language, also known as figurative language,[v] is,

"speech or writing that departs from literal meaning..." (Dictionary.com 21st Century Lexicon)

Here is an example of the bible's symbolic language:  In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the LORD called King Rezin and a man named Pekah,

"two smoldering stubs of firewood." (Isaiah 7:4)

These men were trying to overthrow the Kingdom of Judah.  Obviously, they were not literally,

"two smoldering stubs of firewood."

So, let's ask the question: What might

"smoldering stubs of firewood"

represent?

In nature, a smoldering fire is a fire lacking in strength and on the verge of going out. Therefore, perhaps the LORD was assuring Isaiah that the Kingdom of Judah was no longer facing a serious threat from these two men. And, God was using the imagery of smoldering stubs of firewood to convey His message. A careful look into the context of Isaiah 7:4 reveals this is exactly what the LORD was saying. Also, it's noteworthy that this failed overthrow of the Kingdom of Judah had nothing to do with literal fire, firewood, or what may have looked like firewood to Isaiah. 

People will never understand what was meant in Isaiah 7 until they realize that the subject at hand has nothing to do with what has the appearance of smoldering wood. Also, taking Isaiah's words literally will never solve the mystery of what was written. In fact, demanding a literal interpretation will most certainly lead to a false understanding.

One thing to keep in mind:  The Bible's Book of Revelation was written using the same symbolic language as the Bible's Book of Isaiah.  Therefore, passages from Revelation about burning wood may also have nothing to do with literal fire.

Here is an example:

"The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up." (Rev. 8:7)

While explaining this passage Hal Lindsey wrote:

"To John's eyes, unsophisticated as to ICBM's the holocaust he witnesses looked like 'hail and fire mixed with blood.'" (There's A New World Coming, Hal Lindsey, Vision House, 1973, p 130)

Along with Hal Lindsey, many authors insist that the trees and grass mentioned in Revelation 8 are literally trees and grass; not symbolic of something else. Yet, we have already seen where a verse in Isaiah speaks of smoldering firewood, which was actually an illustration of people. People are often likened to trees in scripture. Also, in Matthew 13 people are illustrated as wheat[vi], which is a type of grass; and, it's explained that the field the wheat is in; is the world:

"The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom." (Matt. 13:38)

So, there are reasons to at least consider that the trees and grass mentioned in Revelation 8 may also represent people.

I can envision someone thinking,

"I would be more inclined to consider that the trees in Revelation 8 are symbolic of people if there was a clear passage in Revelation itself comparing trees to people."

Revelation contains such a passage:

"'... And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.' These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth." (Rev. 11:3-4)  

Whether one believes that Revelation's Two Witnesses are literally just two people, or, if they believe they may represent two groups of people, one thing is certain: the Two Witnesses are clearly depicted as trees in Revelation. Also, if the symbolism in Revelation remains consistent throughout its pages, trees may very well represent people, or groups of people, elsewhere in the book; such as in Revelation 8.

Therefore, let's continue to look in the bible to see if we can find out what this fire and the burning of green vegetation in Revelation 8 may represent. 

There is a similar prophecy of a forest burning in Isaiah:

"Surely wickedness burns like a fire; it consumes briers and thorns, it sets the forest thickets ablaze, so that it rolls upward in a column of smoke.  By the wrath of the LORD Almighty the land will be scorched and the people will be fuel for the fire..." (Isaiah 9:18-19)

In Isaiah, wickedness burns,  

"like a fire"

meaning it's not literal fire. But literal fire is needed to burn literal forest thickets. So, evidently the trees in Isaiah are not literal either. Because wickedness and people are mentioned in the passage, perhaps the forest thickets which are ablaze in Isaiah, are symbolic of people who have become inflamed with wickedness? If this is the case, what is the possibility it may also be true with the trees and grass burning in Revelation 8?

One thing is certain: If the trees and grass in the passage are literal in nature, then it will be obvious to everyone when this trumpet judgment takes place; because one third of earth's trees will have literally burned up.  On the other hand, if the trees and grass represent things other than literal trees and grass, such as people, then the trumpet judgment could come to pass without a single tree being burned up.         

Trees and Grass in Scripture:

Throughout the Bible, churches, nations, kingdoms, and men, are often likened to trees, wheat, corn, weeds, and even grass.

On this subject, Jesus said,

"The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.'" (Matt. 13:38-40)

In the Old Testament it's recorded:

"All the trees of the field will know that I the LORD bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. ‘I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it.’” (Ezekiel 17:24)

Obviously, literal trees do not know or consider anything.  So, the words,

"all the trees of the field will know..." (Ezekiel 17:24)

likely points to the trees being symbolic of something that can think. People fit that criteria. One thing we can be sure of: Figurative language is abundant in prophetic scripture, as demonstrated by this next passage:

"A bruised reed he [Jesus] will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out… " (Isaiah 42:3)

Could the reed of grass in Isaiah 42 also be speaking of people? 

Yes.[vii]

And, understanding that the text in question demanded a non-literal interpretation, why not at least consider that the grass in Revelation 8 may also be pointing to something other than vegetation?

Along these lines, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus said,

"...  'A farmer went out to sow his seed.  As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.  But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.'" (Matt. 13:3-6)

Was Jesus Christ speaking of literal vegetation in Matt 13? No. He was speaking about people because he went on to explain:

"When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path.  The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. (Matt. 13:19-21)

Notice the words,

"falls away"

in that last passage. The people that fall away are the same people who are described as plants who were scorched by the sun in Matthew 13:6. Therefore, the burning trees and green grass in Revelation 8 may very well be symbolic of apostasy from the Christian faith. Trees could represent the more mature Christians, while the green grass may represent those with shallow faith.

Perhaps in Revelation, the reason only green grass is mentioned being burned up and not dried grass, is because dried grass is already dead, so having dried grass burn up would not fit well with symbolism depicting a falling away from the Christian faith.

Another Example of Symbolic Language in Scripture:

"In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel." (Isaiah 4:2)

The words "Branch" and "fruit" in Isaiah 4:2  have nothing to do with literal vegetation. This is symbolic language used to paint a picture of spiritual truth. Along these lines Jesus explained:

"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit..." (John 15:5)

The Book of Revelation is, in a sense, a compilation of figurative scripture found throughout scripture. Much of what is in Revelation can be found in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, etc. In those books, trees are often used to represent men, groups of people, and nations. When the prophet Isaiah wrote about,

"... all the cedars of Lebanon ... " (Isaiah 2:13)

he wasn't talking about literal trees. Isaiah's subject matter is "arrogant men" and "the pride of men." The two previous verses make that abundantly clear.

Also, in Isaiah it is written:

"Even the pine trees and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you and say, 'Now that you have been laid low, no woodsman comes to cut us down.'” (Isaiah 14:8)

The trees in this last verse too, are illustrations of men.

Revelation 1:19-20 is virtually a tutorial on how to interpret the book. Verse 19 instructs John to

"write what things you see and what they ARE" (Greek - 'eisin').

The second clause means to write down the interpretations of what John sees that were given to him.  This is a formula for how to interpret many of John's visions; Revelation frequently provides interpretations of its symbols. This John does in the very next verse when he writes

"the seven stars ARE ('eisin') the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands ARE ('eisin') the seven churches."

More Examples of Where Revelation Interprets Itself:

§  “The ten horns you saw ARE ten kings..." (Rev. 17:12)

§  "...The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, ARE peoples, multitudes, nations and languages." (Rev. 17:15)

Horns = kings and/or the power they possess.

Waters = peoples/etc.

Once we understand that symbolism in scripture remains consistent throughout, and realize that Revelation was written using the same symbolic language, then ask ourselves,

"What might these symbols represent?"

we are on our way to understanding Revelation. 

Another Thing To Consider:

Very close to the end of Revelation's time frame, between the 6th and 7th bowl judgments, these words of Jesus are included in the text:

"Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed. Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. (Rev. 16:15)

A thief comes at a time when people are not expecting him.

Contrast the concept of people not expecting the return of Jesus Christ when, or shortly before he returns, with the belief that the illustrations within Revelation's pages are literal and we have a serious problem—How could Christ's coming be like a thief in the night if everyone just witnessed 1/3 of the trees burning up, all of earth's water turning to blood, and all the fish dying in the sea, etc.; those events, if literal, would be a great warning from heaven that Christ's return was at the door.

This is one more reason to look for figurative meaning to Revelation's narrative.   

 

BOOK INDEX


Endnotes:

[i] THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH, "#1 BESTSELLER OF THE DECADE" HAL LINDSEY With C.C. Carlson, ZONDERVAN, 1970

THERE'S A NEW WORLD COMING, "A PROPHETC ODYSSEY" Hal Lindsey, HARVEST HOUSE, 1973

[ii] Hal Lindsey, considered by many to be the father of modern bible prophecy, published his first book, The Late Great Planet Earth, in 1970.  It was the first book on bible prophecy to be picked up by a secular publisher; (Bantam, 1973) and has since sold over 28 million copies.

[iii] "... and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea." (Revelation 8:8)

[iv] "Some writers have chosen to interpret each symbol quite literally. For example, a locust with the face of a man... I personally tend to think that God might utilize in his judgments some modern devices of man which the Apostle John was at a loss for words to describe nineteen centuries ago! In the case just mentioned, the locusts might symbolize an advanced kind of helicopter." (THERE'S A NEW WORLD COMING, Hal Lindsey, Introduction, p. 16)

[v] Defining Figurative Language

Figurative language is language that uses words or expressions with a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation. When a writer uses literal language, he or she is simply stating the facts as they are. Figurative language, in comparison, uses exaggerations or alterations to make a particular linguistic point. Figurative language is very common in poetry, but is also used in prose and nonfiction writing as well.

There are many different types of figurative language. For example:

...

Symbolism: Symbolism occurs when a noun which has meaning in itself is used to represent something entirely different. One example of symbolism would be to use an image of the American flag to represent patriotism and a love for one’s country.

(Figurative Language, YourDictionary, online)

[vi] "But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away."(Matthew 13:25)

[vii] John Gill's Exposition of the Bible:

A bruised reed shall not break
The tenderness of Christ to weak and ignorant persons is here and in the next clause expressed; by whom young converts or weak believers seem to be designed; who are compared to a "reed", because worthless with respect to God, whom they cannot profit; and in the view of men, who reckon them as nothing; and in themselves, and in their own view, who judge themselves unworthy of the least of mercies; and because they are weak, not only as all men are, of which weakness they are sensible; but they are weak in grace, especially in faith, and have but little hope, their love is the strongest; and because they are wavering like the reed, tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, and shaken with the temptations of Satan, and disturbed with many doubts and fears; and are like a "bruised" reed that is squeezed, and almost broke to pieces, and so of no use; these are broken in heart, under a sense of sin and unworthiness; whose spirits are bruised and wounded with it, and whose hearts are contrite on account of it. On these Christ does not lay his iron rod, but holds out the golden scepter of his grace to them; he does not call them to service and sufferings beyond their strength; but strengthens, supports, and upholds them with the right hand of his righteousness; he binds up their broken hearts, having poured in the balm of Gilead, his own blood, and the wine and oil of his love; he encourages them in their application to him for salvation, and manifests his pardoning grace, and restores comforts to them, and revives their souls: and the smoking flax shall he not quench;
or, "the wick of a candle; {h}" which just going out, has some heat, a little light, smokes, and is offensive; so the persons intended by it are fired or lighted by the divine word; have some heat of affection in them to spiritual things, but have but little light; into the corruption of nature into the glories of Christ's person; into the doctrines of the Gospel; into the everlasting love of God, and the covenant of grace; and but little light of joy and comfort, and this almost gone, and seemingly ready to go out; and yet Christ will not extinguish it, or suffer it to be extinct; he does not discourage small beginnings of grace, or despise the day of small things; he blows up their light into a flame; he increases their spiritual light and knowledge..."