Reading Revelation: Symbols as “Stock Images”

Last night in my college Bible class on Revelation we studied the opening of the first six seals (Revelation 6). When the sixth seal is opened, John reports-

there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:12-17).

What are we to make of this language? Was John seeing a prediction of literal disasters on an epic scale?

One of the keys to understanding Revelation is the Old Testament background to its symbolism (my dear friend and former department chair Ferrell Jenkins has written an excellent book on this topic that is out of print but available on Amazon for a mere $179!). By using your Bible’s cross reference system (or even better, a concordance) you will find that all of these cataclysms are used by the Old Testament prophets to signify impending judgment. Here are some examples-

Earthquake

But the multitude of your foreign foes shall be like small dust,
    and the multitude of the ruthless like passing chaff.
And in an instant, suddenly,
   you will be visited by the Lord of hosts
with thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
    with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire (Isaiah 29:5-6)

Sun, Moon, and Stars

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
    cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
    and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
    will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
    and the moon will not shed its light (Isaiah 13:9-10).

When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens
    and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
    and the moon shall not give its light.
All the bright lights of heaven
    will I make dark over you,
    and put darkness on your land,
declares the Lord God (Ezekiel 32:7-8).

The earth quakes before them;
     the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
    and the stars withdraw their shining.
The Lord utters his voice
    before his army,
for his camp is exceedingly great;
    he who executes his word is powerful.
For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome;
    who can endure it?…
And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes (Joel 2:10-11, 30-31).

Effort to Hide

Samaria’s king shall perish
    like a twig on the face of the waters.
The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel,
    shall be destroyed.
Thorn and thistle shall grow up
    on their altars,
and they shall say to the mountains, “Cover us,”
    and to the hills, “Fall on us” (Hosea 10:7-8).

What is interesting about this survey is that in none of these passages was the language intended to be taken literally. The context of each is God’s judgment on nations like Israel or Judah or Babylon. And the way the prophets described “earth-shattering” divine judgments was with images of, well, the earth shattering!

In this sense, these symbols are similar to stock photos. When I write my blog posts, I often go to a website called Pixabay to find an image to accompany the article. Pixabay, like other websites, contains a collection (a stock) of photographs that is searchable by topic or theme. As an experiment, I just typed in “judgment,” and here is the first image it suggested:

Pretty good, huh! When the prophets of Scripture wanted to warn of God’s impending judgment on disobedient nations, they also had a set of stock images they used. Earthquake – darkening of the sun – moon turning to blood – stars falling from the sky – you get the idea. These stock images immediately conveyed impending judgment.

Jesus employed the very same set of images when He prophesied about the judgment on the temple in the Olivet Discourse:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Matthew 24:29).

And as He was led to execution, He made use of more stock images of judgment –

But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us'” (Luke 23:28-30).

With this background in mind, the vision of the sixth seal is not hard to understand at all. It is the stereotypical way to describe God’s judgment on the wicked. I tend to think John is seeing the same judgment described by Jesus on the Mount of Olives. Others think it has reference to the fall of the Roman Empire. But the gist of the imagery is clear.

One final point. The fact that the same sort of “stock images” are used across the centuries by the spokesmen of the Lord reveals an important truth about God’s sovereignty. God always judges the wicked. In many instances, He judges them in history. And in all cases, He will judge them at the end of history. It is God’s consistent holy judgment throughout the span of time that gives these images their stereotypical impact.

2 Comments

  1. Shane, what a neat way of simplifying and clarifying ..thanks for your good studies!
    Nel

  2. I guess I ought to compliment you for the scholarship of your article, but I want to thank you for the image site. It is a great site!

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