Here is the complete list of Roy Zuck’s very helpful guidelines for interpreting figurative language:
1. Always take a passage in its literal sense unless there is good reason for doing otherwise.
This first point is a repeat from part 1.
There is no reason why numbers in Revelation cannot be interpreted literally. There is no more hidden meaning in the 144,000 (12,000 from the 12 tribes) Jews who will endure the Tribulation in Revelation 14 than the armies of Israel who were numbered in the O.T (2 Samuel 24:9). In Revelation 21:12, the wall around the New Jerusalem has on it the names of the twelve tribes of children of Israel. If this is a symbolic with no literal meaning, were the twelve tribes of Israel in the O.T. also not literal tribes? On the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem are the names of the twelve apostles. If this is only symbolism were the twelve apostles that Jesus chose only symbols? Of course the number the preterists want to symbolize and get rid of is the literal 1000 year reign of Christ in the future on David’s throne.
Robert L. Thomas addresses this specific number in Revelation: “Attempts to assign a symbolic connotation to the thousand years in Revelation 20:1-7 have been multiplied…. All who adopt this tactic, however, cannot explain how two resurrections in 20:4-5 can be described as separated by one thousand years without referring the millennium to the future and dispensing with the need to spiritualize its significance. The two resurrections are designated by the same verb, ezesan (“they lived,” “they came to life”). By common agreement, the later resurrection is clearly a bodily one, so the former one must be too. That means both are future, with a future thousand-year period between them. The literal approach is fair to the text and consistent. To interpret otherwise marks an end of ‘all definite meaning in plain words” (Evangelical Hermeneutic, 336-337).
2. The figurative sense is intended if the literal would involve an impossibility.
“John wrote that Jesus held seven stars in His right hand” (Revelation 1:16).
3. The figurative is intended if the literal meaning is an absurdity, as in trees clapping their hands (Isaiah 55:12).
In Revelation 12:1, the woman is clothed with the sun which is obviously absurd. The demons portrayed as locust in Revelation 9:1-12 is another example.
4. Take the figurative sense if the literal would demand immoral action.
In John 6:53-58, Jesus told the unbelieving Jews that they had to drink His blood and eat His flesh to have eternal life. This is cannibalism if literally interpreted.
5. Note whether a figurative expression is followed by an explanatory literal statement.
Revelation 11:8 explains “the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.” The figurative is made clear by an overt textual indicator. The woman in Revelation 17 is explained to be a city in 17:18.
6. Sometimes a figure is marked by a qualifying adjective, as in “Heavenly Father” (Matthew 6:14).
1. Another clue involves the words “like” (homoios) or “as” (hōs).
When John employs such language, he is indicating a correspondence between what he saw in the vision and what he was trying to describe. For example, Revelation 8:8 says, “And something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea” The word “like” alerts the interpreter to the fact that John is simply using comparative language to describe what he saw and the mountain is not to be interpreted literally.
2. Another clue involves an identical correspondence in the Old Testament.
Because the leopard, lion, and bear in Revelation 13:2 are also used in Daniel 7 to depict nations, the interpreter is alerted to the fact that John is employing symbolic language. Thus, the leopard, lion, and bear also represent nations in Revelation 13 just as they did in Daniel 7.
Robert Thomas summarizes well our study on genres: “Apocalyptic genre does not override or cancel normal rules of interpretation for the last book of the Bible…. The book is prophecy and should be interpreted literally as all other prophecy of Scripture should be” (337).