Symbolism as the Key to Interpretation

Symbolism is universal in literature. Poetry, for example, is intrinsically symbolic: God is not really a shepherd or rock or fortress. Even narrative storytelling has an incipient symbolism. There is something representative about Adam and Eve and David.  We all lose our Edens and sometimes slay Goliath). – Leland Ryken

The simplest way path to interpreting the visionary writing of the Bible is to operate on the premise that such writing is essentially symbolic.  Why would the visionary writers of the Bible want to fill our minds and imaginations with such fantastical things as flying scrolls and red dragons?  Obviously these vivid images stand for something in reality.  In other words, they are symbols — concrete details that represent something else.  Visionary writers construct a world of symbols, a symbolic reality that we must interpret.

But how do we know how to interpret these symbols?  If you are familiar with the content of the Bible, you have an obvious advantage.   If you are unfamiliar with it, you need to look for help from biblical scholarship, such as the footnotes in a study Bible or other source. (Bear in mind, of course, that biblical experts sometimes disagree among themselves about biblical symbolism.)

As we interpret these writings, we must look for the referent of the symbols — the thing to which the specific images refer.  In general, biblical symbols refer to either (1) historical persons and events, or (2) theological doctrines (such as God’s judgment against evil, a coming end to human history, a great battle that exists between good and evil, and so on).

Most of the prophetic writing in the Bible refers to persons and events happening in the present or the near future.  By contrast, eschatological or apocalyptic writing refers to events yet to happen, especially the end of days.  Ezekiel 19 is a good example of a symbolic action referring to specific historical events.  This fantastic story concerns a lioness that is identified as the mother of princes.  Halfway through the chapter, the lioness transforms into a vine, and the vine is transplanted into the wilderness, where fire emanates from one of its branches, consuming the entire vine.  As the footnotes in a study Bible tell us, these symbols tell the story of a sordid era in the biblical nation of Israel’s history.

But visionary writing can also represent theological doctrines.  For an example, we can return to Zechariah 5.  What does the fantastic flying scroll stand for?  As is often the case in visionary writing, the text gives us clues as to what the details symbolize.  The flying scroll destroys the wood and stone houses of people who lie and steal — a vivid portrait of the doctrine that God judges human evil.  More specifically, the vision encapsulates the eighth and ninth commandments of the Decalogue:  you shall not lie; you shall not steal.

In future-oriented, eschatological visions such as the Book of Revelation, symbolic details often align directly with prophetic doctrinal teaching elsewhere in the Bible.  Consider the famous “four horsemen” vision of Revelation 6:1-8.  It is a figurative (rather than literal) image of Jesus’ prediction of the end of days in the Gospel of Matthew:  “Nation will arise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:7).  Even if you don’t recognize the religious prophecy to which the symbolic horsemen refer, it is obvious that they represent a swift, destructive force on earth, sent as a judgment from God against wicked humanity.

Interpretation clearly is in the eye of the beholder.  In a sense, you can read the Bible’s visionary writing at whatever level you wish.  With some research, you can find the specific historical or theological referents for the symbolism.  Otherwise, it is possible to discern the ideas embedded in the fantastic images, such as the eternal conflict between good and evil, God’s control of history, and the abiding power of God’s judgment.