6. Literal Or Figurative


The Unveiling of Jesus Christ

 THIS scroll has suffered so severely from attempts to force a "figurative" meaning on every expression that no solid progress can be expected until we settle upon some definite principle to decide what is to be taken literally and what is expressed in the form of a figure.

It is a fundamental fact in all literature, that the literal leads. Every writing is taken literally until some necessity arises which makes it impossible to understand it so. It is only when we are forced to do so that we find a figure.

And why should not this rule hold in our reading of this revelation? John W. Darby who has been called the greatest student of the Scriptures in the nineteenth century, once remarked to a friend, "Literal, if possible!" If this rule had been followed by all who seek to open up this scroll, the amazing interpretations which have clouded it would never have arisen.

Well do I remember the veil cast over this unveiling by the first serious advice I received to aid me in my search into its true meaning. It was pointed out that it was signified, that is sign-ified—made known by signs or symbols. Hence I was not to expect anything literal. All was figurative. It is needless to say that the book became a puzzle. Progress in unravelling it seemed out of the question.

Finally this statement seemed so contrary to fact and common sense, that the word signified was studied by means of a concordance, to discover whether it retained its etymological meaning in actual usage. I found that it no more meant "to make known by signs" in Greek than it does in English. In fact its common English significance is precisely that which it has in all its occurrences in the Scriptures.

When Festus desired to signify Paul's crimes to Caesar, he did it in writing (Acts 25:26,27). There is not the slightest hint that the "signs" were anything more than the letters of the alphabet. Thus, too, the Lord's plain statement that He would be lifted up, signified what death He would die (John 12:33; 18:32). He signified Peter's death in terms most literal: "When thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldst not" (John 21:18,19).

The fact that this scroll is not a series of signs is finally confirmed by the further fact that it contains signs. There are three distinct signs: the woman clothed in the sun (12: 1), the dragon (12:3), and the seven messengers having the seven last calamities (15:1). One of the curious anomalies of the common version is that, in the last passage it speaks of "another sign," when it had not mentioned any before this. The two previous "signs" are mistranslated "wonders."

Besides these signs the false prophet has the power to do great signs so that he draws down fire from heaven (13:13,14; 19: 20). The spirits of demons, too, that gather the kings of the earth to the great battle, are able to do signs, to accredit their mission (16:14). Indeed, it will be a time in which signs abound.

The common version translates this word "wonders," "miracles" and "signs" in this one book. The Concordant version, which we follow, renders them all alike, reserving "wonders" and "miracles" for other Greek words which they actually represent. A sign is neither a "wonder" (or power) nor a "miracle," but an act or representation to which special significance is attached. Every item of the description of the sun-clothed woman and the diademed dragon and the seven messengers who pour out the seven bowls enables the reader who knows the alphabet of Scripture figures, to fix a literal meaning on the representations which are pictured by these signs.

In our effort to discriminate between the literal and the figurative we may well begin with these signs and acknowledge that they are not literal, but figurative. There is no woman, no dragon; there are no messengers with calamities. These are representative of the ideas which they convey.

Another law which we may lay down as axiomatic is this: The explanation of a figure is literal: it must not be forced into a figure. Simple and sensible as this rule is, its non-observance has caused much confusion and still obscures large sections of this scroll. It will profit us to linger in the light of this principle and consider all the passages in which a figure is explained. In each case we will be able to fix on one part as figurative, and another as literal.

One of the most notable and important passages to which this rule applies fixes the interpretation of the whole prophetic section, comprising the letters to the seven ecclesias in the second and third chapters. It is a question of principal importance whether to take these epistles as they stand and interpret them as literal eccelesias in the Lord's day or whether they have some mystic significance, such, for instance, as that advocated by Miller's Church History, in which each ecclesia is representative of successive sections of church history from the days of the Acts until the present time. It may seem cruel to shatter such an elaborate and interesting application of these letters yet no one who wishes to be true to God and his own conscience can cleave to this system when once he becomes aware of the fact that it denies God's own explanation.

To begin with, these eccelesias were presented to us under a figure—seven lampstands, just as their messengers appeared as stars. Now we may be just as positive that there will be literal messengers as we are that there will not be literal stars. Let us settle this once for all. The stars are figurative, the messengers literal. The messengers do not represent anything else, or they, too, would be figurative. If they are figures, then their explanation may be figurative and we are but at the beginning of an endless series which leads nowhere. Let us avoid all this confusion by insisting that God's explanation is final. The stars are messengers and nothing else (1:20).

The same inexorable logic applies to the lampstands and the ecclesias. We have no difficulty with the lampstands: they are figurative. We should have no difficulty with the ecclesias, for, by the same token, they are literal. In the day of the Lord (to which the vision applies) there will be seven ecclesias in Asia Minor in the places designated, in which the Jews will have synagogues and companies of believers called out to worship Yahweh. To them these epistles will apply just as Paul's letter to the Romans was for the ecclesia in Rome, and all his letters to the seven ecclesias to which he wrote were written for and delivered to those for whom they were penned. We derive instruction from these letters for our use and, no doubt, all the ecclesias in the Lord's day will derive help and guidance from the seven letters John wrote to the seven assemblies. But we cannot take the contents of these letters to ourselves any more than those in that day can take Paul's epistles for their guidance. If they go to Paul's letters they will find them full of grace for the nations, while all around are evidences of God's furious indignation against the nations. They will find that Israel's prior place is suppressed, yet all the while Yahweh is asserting and establishing the supremacy of His earthly people. They would read of a heavenly destiny all out of line with their own hopes and expectations.

And if we seek to take the contents of these letters to ourselves we will suffer the same confusion. The grace of Paul's epistles is displaced by deeds. Instead of sin calling for more grace, there are threats. The promises are all placed in earthly scenes in which we have no heritage. But all this is not necessary to establish the great fact which cannot be gainsaid: the ecclesias are literal and must not suffer any further explanation.

The next example of this kind concerns the seven torches of fire which were burning before the throne (4:5). These are explained as the seven spirits of God. When we remember that God makes His messengers blasts and His officers a flame of fire (Heb.1:7), it is quite plain that these seven spirits are not a figurative designation of God's holy spirit, but literally seven spirits, who appear elsewhere as the seven messengers who blow the trumpets and who pour out the bowls filled with the last calamities. These same spirits are seen again under a different figure. They are the seven horns and seven eyes of the Lambkin. We shall consider this notable figure again.

The incense which was burning in the golden bowls is explained as the prayers of the saints (5:8). We are happy to say, there has been no attempt to transform these prayers into anything else.


There are times when the usual statement of the case is reversed and we are told that that which is literal is, or is represented by, a figure. This is a true metaphor. The simplest figure, if such it may be called is a simile. It simply states that one thing is like another. "All flesh is as grass" is a simile. "All flesh is grass" is a metaphor. The two witnesses are undoubtedly literal men. Their descriptions as "the two olive trees" and "the two lamps" are apt figures connecting them with ancient predictions and describing their ministry with far more force and feeling than any lengthy literal description could possibly do.

The great dragon is a figure which never seems to have caused any difficulty, but, which has never, so far as is known, been closely examined. It is one of the three remarkable composite figures which will engage our attention again.

In order to mobilize the armies of the world at Harmegiddo, these unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the false prophet. By the figure of simile we know that the frogs are but a figure—the spirits are like frogs. Hence we are prepared for the explanation: they are spirits of demons (16:13,14).

The double explanation given to the seven heads of the wild beast (17:9,10) is perhaps the most perplexing in the whole scroll. They are said to represent seven mountains where the woman is sitting on them and they are seven kings. The common version obscures this latter explanation by reading it "And there are seven kings." It is clear, however, from Daniel's vision that the beast is a composite of four kingdoms. Dan.7:17 should read kingdoms instead of kings (as in the LXX) and its heads are, of course, kings. The ten horns are also as we have it in Daniel, "ten kings that shall arise" (Dan.7:24). The heads and horns, therefore, are figurative while the kings are literal. It is evident from this that, in those days there will be a reaction and kings will again find their place in the politics of this world.

It is evident that the false woman identified with Babylon is altogether a figure of speech. We are told also that the waters on which she is seated are figures of peoples and crowds and nations and languages (17:15).

The woman herself is definitely described as "the great city which has a kingdom over the kings of the earth." Here we must pause. This woman has been explained in so many ways, all of which are contrary to and subversive of God's own explanation, that it will be difficult for us to believe God and reject what has been so loudly trumpeted in our ears by learned and godly men. No one will deny that Luther was a good man but that is no reason why all his words were infallible. His hatred of Rome led him to use every weapon he could find against the Papacy. And the Church of Rome must not be confounded with a city. It is a religious system, having it headquarters chiefly at Rome, but the city is not itself under the Pope's jurisdiction. It has been ruled by a Jew for many years. We must look elsewhere for a city having a sovereignty over the kings of the earth. And it is evident that this city is not Rome but Babylon. There is absolutely no reason for calling any other city Babylon than the one on the banks of the Euphrates, the city which alone has witnessed three world empires. Even Pagan Rome never ruled over all the earth, for it never ruled over Babylon. Babylon, then, is literal: its figure is the scarlet woman.

In blessed contrast with the gaudy strumpet, the wife of the Lambkin is clothed in clean shining cambric, for the cambric is the just rewards of the saints. So we are not at all sure that the saints in the millennium will go about dressed in white any more than that the heavenly hosts will always wear that color! The garments are figurative, expressing the just rewards which they receive (19:8).

The last instance of this sort is very plain. The new Jerusalem, we are told, has no temple. And then we are immediately informed that it has a temple, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lambkin are its temple. Is it not clear that a literal temple there will be none, but that its place will be filled by the divine dignities Whose Presence sanctified the temples of former ages?

If we wish to understand this prophecy let us take heed to this simple maxim: God's explanations are final and literal; we dare not improve upon them. The seven lampstands are seven ecclesias—nothing more. The faithless woman is a city—nothing more. As the faithful woman is Jerusalem, so the unfaithful one is Babylon.


The three notable composite symbols of this scroll are well worth special study and consideration. The first is the Lambkin, which takes the scroll and opens its seven seals. It has seven horns and seven eyes, which we are told are the seven spirits of God who are commissioned for the entire earth. We are acquainted with the figure of a bride as associated with the Lambkin in the rule of the millennial earth. We are familiar with the figure of the body of Christ, through which He administers the celestial realms. But very little has been said of His relation to the spirit world. Yet it is evident that, in the execution of the judgments of this book, He is assisted by the seven messengers who blow the seven trumpets. Is it not these who are figured by the seven horns (symbols of power) and the seven eyes (symbols of discernment)? Often does our Lord enforce the fact that His helpers in this era are the "angels" or messengers. The work of the harvest at the end of the eon is done by His messengers. They sever the wicked from among the just and reap the harvest (Matt. 13:39-49). When the Son of Man comes in His glory He will be accompanied by all the holy messengers (Matt.25:31; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26). Paul speaks of the unveiling of the Lord Jesus as the time when He will come with His mighty messengers.


The wild beast is another notable composite symbol. Combining in its make-up all the four beasts of the seventh of Daniel, it is evident that it represents a world-confederacy in which there are four distinct characteristic groups, represented by the four animals, as well as seven kings, figured by the seven heads, and by ten military powers, symbolized by the ten horns.

While the wild beast, in the common version, seems to be a single man, it is evident that the Concordant Version gives the proper impression by using the pronoun it, rather than he, when referring to it, for it includes many kings in its composition. One of its heads, which was wounded to death and survives the stroke obtains special recognition, but the beast is not limited to one of its heads. It includes the whole politico-ecclesiastic organization of the world.

This disposes of many theories about the "mark" of the beast, which build upon the supposition that it is a single individual. It is rather the symbol, the international emblem for the whole earth, which is meant by the "mark" of the beast. So also with the number of the beast. Led on by the statement that it is the number of "a man," many fanciful applications have been devised and the number fastened upon numberless men from Nero to Napoleon and even later.

The number of the wild beast is the number of mankind, not of a single individual. To wear the number, or the name, or the emblem of the wild beast will be the highest form of international patriotism. What the flag of the fatherland is to the patriot of today, such will be the emblem of the wild beast in that coming day.

It is remarkable that the dragon appears in a form which is almost an exact counterpart of the wild beast. It has seven heads and ten horns. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that we have here the spirit rulers of the world in whose hands the wild beast is but a puppet. Truly "the heavens do rule." It will be a righteous rule in the days to come, but now it is the "world rulers of darkness." How little do we realize that Satan is the god of this eon, just as Christ will be the god of the eons in that day (2 Cor.4:4). How thoroughly Satan dominates world powers will be evident when the dragon appears with an organization, a close counterpart of the world federation of which he has been the chief organizer. In the dragon we must include Satan's staff of executives just as the Lambkin with seven horns includes the executives of Christ. It is the organized confederacy of God's enemies in the spirit world.

It would be too irksome a task to sort out all the figures from the literal groundwork of this book. A few suggestions must suffice.

In the introductory vision there is One like the Son of Mankind. The vision is figurative as are all the references to it in the seven letters that follow. But these epistles themselves are literal, though, of course, they may, at times, use figures to enforce their messages. The promises, too, are usually to be taken literally.

This principle will solve those puzzling passages, such as the ten days tribulation, spoken of in the Smyrnan letter. There will not be ten years persecution, or ten persecutions, but an affliction lasting ten days. In Philadelphia are those claiming to be Jews and are not. This has been a hard one. Who wants to be a Jew today? Too often the Jews claim to be Gentiles to escape persecution. Leave it literal and in the day of the Lord, and all difficulty vanishes.

In the great visions that follow, the heavenly setting is usually a magnificent figure. No one takes the central Figure of all—the Lambkin as literal. Neither is the scroll and its seven seals, or the trumpets, or the bowls. The action which these introduce is also couched in the language of feeling rather than the language of fact. But the effects on earth are almost always strictly literal.

The four horses, for example, are symbols of swift, impetuous action. But the conquests, the wars, the famine, the pestilence will be fearful facts. So with the succeeding judgments, the burning of the trees, the mountain of fire falling into the sea, the star falling on the rivers and springs, the eclipse of the sun—all of which affects a third part—must be taken quite literally.

So with the numbers in this scroll. There is every reason to take them as they stand. Make them symbolic and they immediately become unruly. Why should there not be exactly one hundred and forty four thousand celibates? Why should not the two witnesses testify twelve hundred and sixty days? If we make these days years, then the witnesses themselves must be "spiritualized," and if we deny these two a place among men, then the whole book becomes a phantasmagoria in which nothing has any stable meaning.

Literal if possible!


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