Southward through Eden went a river large,
Nor changed his course, but through the shaggy hill
Passed underneath ingulfed, for God had thrown
That mountain as his garden-mould high raised
Upon the rapid current, which through veins
Of porous earth with kindly thirst up drawn,
Rose a fresh fountain, and with many a rill
Watered the garden; thence united fell
Down the steep glade, and met the nether flood,
Which from his darksome passage now appears,
And now divided into four main streams,
Runs diverse, wand’ring many a famous realm
And country whereof here needs no account,
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that sapphire fount the crisped brooks,
Rowling on orient pearl and sands of gold,
With mazy error under pendent shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flow’rs worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In beds and curious knots, but Nature boon
Poured forth profuse on hill and dale and plain,
Both where the morning sun first warmly smote
The open field, and where the unpierced shade
Imbrowned the noontide bowers.
–John Milton, Paradise Lost [4.223-46]
You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so it is with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many. and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
HOW TO READ PROPHECY
I began my personal journey toward the eschatology of dominion one evening in church, about a dozen years ago. The pastor, a preacher famous for his expository method of Bible teaching, had just begun a series on prophecy. As he eloquently defended his eschatology of defeat, I was struck by the fact that he seemed utterly unable to develop his views organically from the Bible. Oh, he quoted some Scripture – a verse here, a verse there. But he was never able to show that his explanation of the future fit in with the overall pattern of the Bible. In other words, he was very adept at imposing his views of reality upon the Biblical text, making sure his verses were shuffled together in the proper order. But he could not show how his doctrines flowed out of Scripture; his eschatology did not seem to be an organic part of the Story which the Bible tells.
What I began to realize that night was that the way to recover the Biblical eschatology must be through an understanding of the Biblical Story. Instead of trying to fit the Bible into a prearranged pattern, we must try to discover the patterns that are already there. We must allow the Bible’s own structure to arise from the text itself, to impose itself upon our own understanding. We must become accustomed to the Biblical vocabulary and modes of expression, seeking to shape our own thinking in terms of Scriptural categories.
This perspective sheds valuable light on the old debate about “literal” versus “symbolic” interpretations. To a great degree, that debate is beside the point; for the fact is that all interpreters are “literalists” on some points and “symbolists” on others.
For example, I am looking at a recent commentary on Revelation, written by a well-known evangelical scholar. The back cover boldly proclaims: This may be the most literal exposition of Revelation you will ever read! And yet, upon close inspection, the commentary actually teaches a highly symbolic interpretation of many items in the prophecy. Here are a few of them:
- The “soiled garments” of the Christians in Sardis (Rev. 3:4);
- The promise that Christians will become “pillars” in the Temple (3:12);
- The “lukewarm” temperature of the Laodiceans (3:15-16);
- Christ’s offer to seIl “gold,” “white garments,” and “eye salve” (3:18);
- Christ’s “knocking” at the “door” (3:20);
- The “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (5:5);
- The “Lamb” with “seven eyes” (5:6);
- The “olive trees” and “Iampstands” (11:4);
- The “woman clothed with the sun” (12:1);
- The “great red dragon” (12:3);
- The seven-headed “Beast” (13:1);
- The “great harlot who sits on many waters” (17:1).
There are few “literalists” who would disagree that these pictures in Revelation are meant to be understood symbolically. What we must recognize, however, is that symbols are used throughout the rest of Scripture as well, right alongside very literal language. This is because the Bible is literature: it is divinely inspired and inerrant literature, but it is literature all the same. This means that we must read it as literature. Some parts are meant to be literally understood, and they are written accordingly – as history, or theological propositions, or whatever. But one would not expect to read the Psalms or the Song of Solomon by the same literary standards used for the Book of Romans. It would be like reading Hamlet’s soliloquy “literally”: “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune… to take arms against a sea of troubles. …”
You see, we cannot understand what the Bible really (literally) means unless we appreciate its use of literary styles. Would we understand the Twenty-third Psalm properly if we were to take it “literally”? Would it not, instead, look somewhat silly? In fact, if taken literally, it would not be true: for I daresay that the Lord doesn’t make every Christian to lie down in literal, green pastures. But we don’t usually make such crude mistakes in reading Biblical poetry. We know it is written in a style that often makes use of symbolic language. But we must realize that the same is true of the prophets: they, also, spoke in poetry, in figures and symbols, drawing on a rich heritage of Biblical images which, as we shall see, actually began in the original Paradise – the Garden of Eden.
Indeed, that is where prophecy began. And it is worth noting that the very first promise of the coming Redeemer was stated in highly symbolic terms. God said to the Serpent:
I will put enmity
Between you and the woman
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall crush your head,
And you shall strike His heel.
The real question to start with, therefore, is not some artificial symbolic-vs.-literal debate, but a much more basic issue: Shall our interpretation be Biblical or speculative? In other words, when I attempt to understand or explain something in the Bible, should I go to the Bible itself for the answers, or should I come up with something “creative” on my own? To put the question in this way is much more accurate, and will yield more fruitful results.
Let me use an extreme example to make my point clear. The Book of Revelation describes a woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, and laboring in childbirth while a dragon hovers nearby to devour her child. A radically speculative interpreter might turn first to news of the latest genetic experiments, to determine whether a woman’s size and chemical composition might be altered sufficiently for her to be able to wear the sun; he might also check to see if the Loch Ness Monster has surfaced recently. A Biblical interpreter, on the other hand, would begin to ask questions: Where in the Bible does this imagery come from? Where does the Bible speak of a woman in labor, and what is its significance in those contexts? Where does the Bible speak of a Dragon? Where does the Bible speak of someone trying to murder an infant? If we are going to understand the message of the Bible, we must acquire the habit of asking questions like this.
Of course, each approach has its drawbacks. The main drawback of the Biblical method is that it usually requires more hard work, necessitating a greater familiarity with the Bible. The main drawback of the speculative method, for all its sensationalism, is that it just isn’t Biblical.
The Language of the Prophets
As I mentioned above, much of the Bible is written in symbols. A helpful way to understand this, perhaps, would be to speak of these symbols as a set of patterns and associations. By this I mean that Biblical symbolism is not a code. It is, instead, a way of seeing, a perspective. For example, when Jesus speaks of “living water” (John 4:10), we rightly recognize that He is using water as a symbol. We understand that when He spoke to the woman at the well, He was not merely offering her “water.” He was offering her eternal life. But He called it “water.” We should immediately ask: Why did He do that? He could have simply said “eternal life.” Why did He speak in metaphor? Why did He want her to think of water?
Now this is where we can make a big mistake, and this is the primary error of some interpreters who try to take a “symbolic” approach. It is to think that Biblical symbolism is primarily a puzzle for us to solve. We can suddenly decide: “Aha! Water is a special code-word which means eternal life. That means that whenever the Bible talks about water symbolically, it is really talking about eternal life; whenever someone takes a drink, he is really becoming a Christian.” It just doesn’t work that way (as you will see if you try to apply it throughout the Bible). Besides, what sense would it make for the Bible simply to put everything in code? The Bible is not a book for spies and secret societies; it is God’s revelation of Himself to His covenant people. The puzzle-solving, mystical interpretation tends to be speculative; it does not pay sufficient attention to the way the Bible itself speaks.
When Jesus offered “water” to the woman, He wanted her to think of the multiple imagery connected with water in the Bible. In a general sense, of course, we know that water is associated with the Spiritual refreshment and sustenance of life which comes through salvation. But the Biblical associations with water are much more complex than that. This is because understanding Biblical symbolism does not mean cracking a code. It is much more like reading good poetry.
The symbolism of the Bible is not structured in a flat, this-means-that style. Instead, it is meant to be read visually. We are to see the images rise before us in succession, layer upon layer, allowing them to evoke a response in our minds and hearts. The prophets did not write in order to create stimulating intellectual exercises. They wrote to teach. They wrote in visual, dramatic symbols; and if we would fully understand their message we must appreciate their vocabulary. We must read the Bible visually. The visual symbols themselves, and what the Bible says about them, are important aspects of what God wants us to learn; otherwise, He wouldn’t have spoken that way.
So, when the Bible tells us a story about water, it is not “really” telling us about something else; it is telling us about water. But at the same time we are expected to see the water, and to think of the Biblical associations with regard to water. The system of interpretation offered here is neither “literalistic” nor “symbolic”; it takes the “water” seriously and literally, but it also takes seriously what God’s Word associates with water throughout the history of Biblical revelation.
What are some of the Biblical associations which might have occurred to the woman at the well, and to the disciples? Here are a few of them:
- The watery, fluid mass that was the original nature of the earth at the creation, and out of which God formed all life (Gen. 1);
- The great river of Eden that watered the whole earth (Gen.2);
- The salvation of Noah and his family by the waters of the Flood, out of which the earth was re-created (Gen. 6-9);
- God’s gracious revelations to Hagar by a fountain (Gen. 16) and a well (Gen. 21);
- The well called Rehoboth, where God gave Isaac dominion (Gen. 26);
- The river out of which the infant Moses, the future Deliverer of Israel, was taken and made a prince (Ex.2);
- The redemptive crossing of the Red Sea, where God again saved His people by water (Ex. 14);
- The water that flowed from the stricken Rock at Sinai, giving life to the people (Ex. 17);
- The many ritual sprinklings in the Old Testament, signifying the removal of filth, pollution, sickness and death, and the bestowal of the Spirit upon the priests (e.g., Lev. 14; Num. 8);
- The crossing of the Jordan River (Josh. 3);
- The sound of rushing waters made by the pillar of cloud (Ezek. 1);
- The River of Life flowing from the Temple and healing the Dead Sea (Ezek. 47).
Thus, when the Bible speaks of water, we are supposed to have in our minds a vast host of associative concepts, a complex of Biblical images that affects our thinking about water. To put it differently, water is supposed to be something like a “buzz-word,” a term that calls up many associations and connotations. When we read the word water we should be reminded of God’s saving acts and revelations by water throughout Scripture. The Bible uses many of these “buzz-words,” and increases the number of them as it goes on; until, by the time we get to Revelation (the capstone of Biblical prophecy), they all come rushing toward us at once, in a blizzard of associative references, some of which are obvious, some obscure. To the one who really knows his Bible and has noted the literary patterns and images, much of the book will look familiar; to the rest of us, it’s confusing. In Revelation, we are confronted with all the Biblical connotations of numerous images: not only water, but light, fire, clouds, angels, stars, lamps, food, stones, swords, thrones, rainbows, robes, thunder, voices, animals, wings, scavengers, eyes, keys, trumpets, plagues, mountains, winds, seas, altars, blood, locusts, trees, heads, horns, and crowns.
Revelation also presents us with pictures of a Woman, a Dragon, a wilderness, a mark in the forehead, a sickle, pearls, a winepress, a cup of wine, a Harlot, a river, Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, resurrection, a wedding, a marriage supper, the Bridegroom, and the Bride/City in the shape of a pyramid. And then there’s the use of symbolic numbers: two, three, four, seven, ten, twelve, and multiples thereof-24, 42, 144, 666, 1,000, 1,260, 7,000, 12,000, and 144,000.
This is why it’s necessary to understand the Bible and its use of symbols and patterns if we are ever to understand the Book of Revelation. The following chapters on the Paradise theme in Scripture are designed to introduce the reader to the Bible’s use of imagery. Essentially, this is an exercise in Biblical Theology, the technical term for the study of God’s progressive revelation of salvation. In principle, the whole Story of redemption is taught in the early chapters of the Bible: the rest is simply built upon the foundation laid there. This is why, as we shall see below, the later revelations depend so heavily on the theme of the Garden of Eden.
As we enter this study of Biblical imagery, let’s review the basic rules:
- Read visually; try to picture what the Bible is saying.
- Read Biblically; don’t speculate or become abstract, but pay close attention to what the Bible itself says about its own symbols.
- Read the Story; try to think about how each element in the Bible contributes to its message of salvation as a whole.