Q&A: Imagery in the Book of Revelation

Imagery in the Book of Revelation

Why does the Bible use so many images and metaphors?

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Answer

For us, the imagery and metaphor can make it more difficult. For the original audience, it probably made it more vivid. So, there's a cultural, historical distance between us and them that, yeah, like any kind of ancient literature, means we have to translate it; we have to bring over the analogies into more contemporary parlance. In the book of Revelation, there may be an additional element. Besides Revelation drawing from Old Testament imageries — it's often missed — but most, and maybe even all, maybe we just haven't figured them all out, but most of the imageries of the visions of Revelation look like they're actually throwbacks to or hearkenings back to Old Testament revelation or prophecy or prophetic imagery with which God's people at the time would have been familiar.

The other thing that may be going on in the book of Revelation is that John is writing from Patmos in exile. He's essentially in prison. Like prison today, when you write letters, your mail is being read by the authorities. It's possible that part of what John is up to — the Holy Spirit through John is up to — is sending messages to God's people that would have been very clear but in such a clouded, riddled way that the authorities who put him in exile wouldn't have gotten it, wouldn't have gotten the punchlines, wouldn't have gotten the jokes. Much like Uncle Remus' fables were actually designed to communicate to African-American people living under oppression of how to operate, how to navigate a world in which the authorities are always watching, in which you are disenfranchised, vulnerable, unempowered and thus subject to the abuse and the oppression of the authorities, and here are some stories to give you wisdom, and encouragement to persevere in an environment like that. The book of Revelation may work very much like that as well.

Answer by Dr. Todd Mangum

Dr. Todd Mangum is Professor of Theology and Academic Dean of Biblical Theological Seminary.