Jeffrey D. Arthurs, in Preaching With Variety, states in his discussion of the apocalyptic genre in Revelation: “Numbers are also highly symbolic in this genre. In Revelation there are seven letters, seals, trumpets, plagues, angels, and bowls. The foundation of the city is made of twelve precious stones, and twelve thousand servants of God from each tribe of Israel are sealed.” Then later he asks this question: “What is to be gained from fantasy that cannot be gained from realism? Visionary symbols are more than stylistic choices; they are powerful rhetoric” (Preaching With Variety, 185) implying the numbers in Revelation are fantasy and serve a purpose.
Bernard Ramm states that the “parent of all excessive manipulation of Bible numbers is to be found in the Jewish Rabbinical method known as Gematria. Examples of such are as follows: In Genesis 49:10 the Hebrew numerial value of ”Shiloh come” is 358, which is in turn equivalent to Meshiach, and so Shiloh is identified with the Messiah.” Ramm believes “that there is a basic symbolism of numbers in the Bible” and that Revelation is “especially rich in the symbolic use of numbers.” But Ramm reveals his covenant or reformed prejudice for allegorizing numbers when he gives an example of the symbolism of the number seven: “seven represented the covenant of grace” (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 235). One of the problems with Covenant Theology is that its three big covenants: Covenant of Redemption, Works, and Grace are not specifically mentioned in Scripture. And so, it appears in some cases, if the literal interpretation of Scripture cannot support your theology, symbolism must be subsituted.
The amillinnialism of Milton S. Terry influenced his hermeneutics of numbers in Revelation. In his discussion of numbers, he says, that numbers have symbolic meanings, but “we must not suppose that they thereby necessarily lose their literal and proper meaning. The number ten, as shown above, and some few instances of the number seven authorize us to say that they are used sometimes indefinitely in the sense of many. But when, for example, it is written that seven priests, with seven trumpets, compassed Jericho on the seventh day seven times, we understand the statement in their literal sense” (Biblical Hermeneutics, 384). I agree. Numbers can have symbolic meaning without stripping them of their literalness.
When it comes to the 1000 year reign of Christ in Revelation 20:1-7, Terry’s ammillinnialism does not allow this number to be literal. “We understand that the millennium of Rev. xx, 1-6, is now in progress. It dates from the consummation of the Jewish age. It is a round definite number used symbolically for an indefinite aeon….It may require a million years” (487).
Just because there are symbols and symbolic or figurative language in God’s Word does not mean that the grammatical-historical method of literal interpretation must be abandoned.
Roy Zuck asks this question, “Is figurative language the opposite of literal interpretation?” To which he answers, “Figurative language then is not antithetical to literal interpretation; it is a part of it” (Basic Bible Interpretation, 147). Zuck gives a helpful explanation and example: “Generally an expression is figurative when it is out of character with the subject discussed, or is contrary to fact, experience, or observation. If we hear a sports announcer say, ‘The Falcons beat the Lions,’ we understand him to be referring to two football teams, and not to be suggesting that birds of prey are attacking literal lions” (146). Even in our everyday modern conversation, figurative language is used and understood.
Zuck provides the following guidelines for interpreting figurative language.
1. Always take a passage in its literal sense unless there is good reason for doing otherwise.
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). In Part 2, I complete this list of guidelines.