We cannot insist on a literal meaning for the three and a half years of the tribulation period or the thousand years of the millennium. They could be literal, but the numbers function symbolically in the book and probably signify a lengthy period of time that is under God’s control.1We are being asked to trade gold for fool’s gold! Rather than understand three and a half as denoting a specific period of time specified by God,2 we are asked to accept the alternate meaning which our interpreter says is probably correct!There is a strong bias against literal understanding of numbers in the book of Revelation. Even when the text seems quite explicit as to the identification of what is being described, commentators refuse to take the text at face value:
Let us consider the meaning of numbers in the book. . . . While some (Seiss, Walvoord, Thomas) tend to consider them literally, they are forced to some creative interpretations, for example, regarding the 144,000 who are sealed in Rev. 7:4-8+. Walvoord . . . believes this means that 12,000 sealed in each tribe are those selected to be God’s special witnesses through the tribulation period, but it seems more likely that the numbers in the book are meant symbolically as was common in ancient apocalypses. [emphasis added]3Notice how those who adhere to a literal interpretation and who arrive at a uniform understanding are said to be employing “creative interpretations.” That the exact opposite is the case can be easily demonstrated by noting the wide variation in interpretation among the commentators who take the 144,000 Jews as being non-Jews. Here again we see an appeal to the literary genre including a host of non-canonical writings to undermine the straightforward text. We are told that we should not understand the 144,000 Jews to be 144,000 individuals nor Jews, because this book is to be read like any other “ancient apocalypse” where symbols serve as the vehicle for communicating inspirational musings and obscure political inferences. Never mind that the text goes to great lengths to make sure we know these are Jews (each of the twelve tribes is individually listed) and their appearance at this point in the events of the book of Revelation is in perfect accord with the doctrine of the believing Jewish remnant which runs throughout Scripture (1K. 19:18; 2K. 19:4, 30; 21:14; 25:22; Isa. 1:9; 6:13; 7:3; 10:20-22; 28:5; 37:4, 31-32; 46:3; 59:21; 65:8; Jer 5:10; 5:18; 23:3; 50:20; Eze. 5:3; 6:8-10; 9:8, 11; Eze. 11:13; Joel 2:32; Mic. 2:12; 7:18; Zec. 11:10; 13:8-9; Rom. 9:6, 27; Rom. 11:5, 17, 25; Gal. 6:16; 1Pe. 1:1; Rev. 12:17+).4 We believe the correct view on the interpretation of numbers within the book of Revelation is to understand them in their primary, literal sense, but to also recognize biblical numerology where certain numbers appear with special emphasis throughout Scripture and carry additional meaning beyond the bare facts they record:
The fact is that no number in Revelation is verifiably a symbolic number. On the other hand, the nonsymbolic usage of numbers is the rule. It requires multiplication of a literal 12,000 by a literal twelve to come up with 144,000 in Rev. 7:4-8+. The churches, seals, trumpets, and bowls are all literally seven in number. The three unclean spirits of Rev. 16:13+ are actually three in number. The three angels connected with the last three woes (Rev. 8:13+) add up to a total of three. The seven last plagues amount to exactly seven. The equivalency of 1,260 days and three and a half years necessitate a nonsymbolic understanding of both numbers. The twelve apostles and the twelve tribes of Israel are literally twelve (Rev. 21:12-14+). The seven churches are seven literal cities. Yet confirmation of a single number in Revelation as symbolic is impossible.5
Numbers may be understood literally, but even when understood in this way, they often carry with them also a symbolical meaning. Hence the number seven, . . . refers to seven literal churches . . . Yet by the very use of this number (which speaks of completion or perfection) the concept is conveyed that these were representative churches which in some sense were complete in their description of the normal needs of the church.6For example, we understand that God completed His creation within a literal six-day period and rested on the seventh (Gen. 2:1; Ex. 20:11; 31:17). We also understand that He did this by design as a pattern to establish the working week for man (Ex. 20:9; 23:12; 31:15; etc.). The number has a two-fold significance. First, it has a literal meaning: the creation spanned six 24-hour days. Second, it has a symbolical meaning: the number seven carries the meaning of rest or completion. To deny the primary literal meaning in order to major on the secondary symbolism would be an error. So too would be an interpretation which denies the secondary symbolism.When we interpret numbers primarily in their literal sense, we are in the company of the earliest interpreters to whom the Scriptures were entrusted: the Jews. Prior to the rise of allegorical interpretation, the rabbis understood the Scriptures in the same way as literal interpreters today. For example, the last ‘seven’ of Daniel’s seventy sevens (Dan. 9:24-27+) are understood as a literal period of seven years.7 When we read the book of Revelation, we do not enter some strange Alice in Wonderland world where normative communication is set aside in favor of speculation. Those commentators who do so would never dream of applying similar methods of interpretation to other passages of Scripture. In the gospels they understand twelve apostles as twelve apostles, three days as three days, and so on.The existence of symbols and categorization of writing as apocalyptic genre are not license for jettisoning the primary literal meaning of numbers.
1 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 17-18.
2 Years based on factors related to Dan. 9:24-27+.
3 Osborne, Revelation, 17.
4 The forward to Osborne’s work, a volume within the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament states: “the contributors share a belief in the trustworthiness and essential unity of Scripture” yet when the distinctions between inspired and uninspired writings are minimized or ignored, the unity of Scripture is denied and the trustworthiness of Scripture is denigrated to the level of uninspired works. Here the author seems to place Scripture on a par with “ancient apocalypses.”
5 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8-22 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), 408.
6 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), 28.
7 “Looking at the Scriptures from a normative standpoint gives the Jews and Christians the same interpretation. Raphael Patai, quoting from the rabbinical writings, says, ‘Things will come to such a head that people will despair of Redemption. This will last seven years. And then, unexpectedly, the Messiah will come. . . . At the end of the seventh [year] the son of David will come.’ ”—Mal Couch, “Interpreting the Book of Revelation,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 64.