End Times Prophecy Revelation — Glossary of Symbols

This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened (Luke 21:32)

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The Kingdom of Israel

John Shepard

April 8, 2002


Revelation — Glossary of Symbols


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Summary

The book of Revelation contains many symbols and images and it is necessary to properly understand these in order to understand the book. This glossary contains what I consider to be the key symbols.

Update Sept. 8, 2013: Since writing this article I've adopted a strictly literal methodology of Bible interpretation. Symbols are real and have a tangible existence in the spiritual realm.

Another commentary

I highly recommend the following book which is an excellent commentary of the book of Revelation:

"The Apocalypse and the Third Millennium," by George Montague.

Links to topics:

Date of Writing | Principles of Interpretation | Key Interpretation Points | System of Interpretation | Is There a Temple? | 3 1/2 Years | The Roman Emperors | The "Unholy Trinity"

Links to other articles:

Verse by Verse Commentary | Key Issues

   End Time Prophecy Leads to Rome | The Kingdom of Israel



Revelation — Glossary of Symbols


Abyss | Antichrist | Ark of God's Covenant | Armageddon | Babylon | Babylon the Great | Beast | Beloved City | Binding of Satan | Blood | Bowl Judgments | Desert | Dragon | Egypt | Euphrates River | False Prophet | Fine Linen | First Resurrection | Flashes of lightning & peals of thunder | Gog and Magog | Great City | Great city split into three parts | Great Multitude | Great Prostitute | Great Star | Great Tribulation | Great White Throne | Hail and Fire Mixed with Blood | Holy City | Horn | Huge Mountain | Incense | Jerusalem | Lake of Burning Sulfur | Lake of Fire | Locusts | Mark of the Beast | Marriage Feast | Mt. Zion | Natural Phenomena | New Heaven and New Earth | New Jerusalem | New Song | Prayers of the Saints | Rainbow | Scroll | Sea | Sea of Glass | Seal Judgments | Seal on their Forehead | Second Death | Silence in Heaven | Sodom | Tree of Life | Trinity | Trumpet Judgments | Unholy Trinity | Water of Life | White | White Robe | Woman | Wormwood

2 Horns | 2 Witnesses | 3 Woes | 4 corners of the earth | 4 living creatures | 4 winds | 7 churches | 7 eyes | 7 golden lampstands | 7 hills | 7 horns | 7 kings | 7 lamps | 7 spirits of God | 7 stars | 24 elders | 42 months | 24 thrones

Numbers | 1/3 | 3 1/2 | 7 | 10 | 12 | 666 | 1,000 | 1,260 | 10,000 | 12,000 | 144,000

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Egypt — The world system which doesn't honor or obey God. In Revelation 11:8 it is Rome (the great city) that is called Egypt. In the time of Moses, it was God's will to let the Israelites go but the Egyptians wouldn't honor God's will. 11:8

The Lord delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe. (Jude 1:5)

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Sodom — Sin or hedonistic lifestyle. In Revelation 11:8 it is Rome (the great city) that is called Sodom. This speaks of the decadence and hedonism of the Roman Empire. For the most part, the Romans didn't honor God or His laws. 11:8

In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 1:7)

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Horn — Authority, strength and power. 5:6, 9:13, 12:3, 13:1, 13:11, 17:3, 17:7, 17:12, 17:16

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. (Luke 1:69)

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Rainbow — Sign of God's covenant. 4:3, 10:1.

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Flashes of lightning & peals of thunder — Images from the giving of the covenant at Sinai. Four references: 4:5, 8:5, 11:19, & 16:18. Read an analysis.

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Sea of Glass — Separation of man from God because of His holiness. The same as the veil in the tabernacle. 4:6, 15:2

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Scroll — God's plan for mankind. 5:1

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Incense — The image of the smoke of the incense represents the prayers of the saints. God hears them and acts on them. In part, His judgment of the wicked world is a response to these prayers.

In this image, the prayers of the saints are mixed with the incense. When burned during persecution and martyrdom, these prayers are a fragrant aroma which pleases the Lord and causes Him to judge the wicked.

Our prayers are very important to God, and that is a major theme of the book of Revelation. 5:8, 8:3, 8:4, & 18:13.

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New Song — Song of redemption. 5:9, 14:3.

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The Seven Seals — A sweeping panoramic view of human history.

First Seal — White horse. Political conquest. 6:2.

Second Seal — Red horse. War and civil war. 6:4.

Third Seal — Black horse. Famine and economic injustice. 6:6.

Fourth Seal — Pale horse, the color of death. Death by man, beast, disease and famine. A recap of all the terrible things that happen in this world. 6:8.

Fifth Seal — The martyrs under the altar. These are the Christians who have been getting killed by Domitian in the last few years. Martyrdom for the faith will continue throughout all of human history. 6:9.

Sixth Seal — The destruction of the earth by fire and judgment. 6:12-14.

Seventh Seal — The eternal state in heaven for the redeemed. 8:1.

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Trumpet Judgments — These are partial judgments to warn the people to repent. The images in the trumpet judgments are from Old Testament prophecies and accounts, particularly from the Exodus. The trumpet is used in the Old Testament to warn the people of God's impending judgment.

I appointed watchmen over you and said, "Listen to the sound of the trumpet!" But you said, "We will not listen." (Jer 6:17)

First Trumpet — God's judgment on the land and the people in it. 8:7.

Second Trumpet — God's judgment of the sea. 8:8-9.

Third Trumpet — God's judgment on the rivers and springs. 8:10-11.

Fourth Trumpet — God's judgment on the heavenly bodies. 8:12.

Fifth Trumpet — The first woe. Satan rules in the hearts of men. 9:2-4.

Sixth Trumpet — The second woe. Satan rules the worldly kingdoms. 9:14-16.

Seventh Trumpet — The Third woe. God's final judgment. 11:19.

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Bowl Judgments — In the bowl judgments God pours out His wrath upon those who refuse to repent. He warned them in the trumpet judgments but they choose to reject His warning. The images in the bowl judgments are from Old Testament prophecies and accounts.

First Bowl — This judgment is upon those who have accepted the mark of the beast. 16:2.

Second Bowl — God's judgment of the sea. 16:3.

Third Bowl — God's judgment on the rivers and springs. 16:4.

Fourth Bowl — God's judgment on the heavenly bodies. 16:8-9.

Fifth Bowl — Rome is judged with spiritual darkness. 16:10-11.

Sixth Bowl — Rome is conquered by the barbarians. 16:12-16.

Seventh Bowl — God's final judgment of the world. 16:17-18.

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Three Woes — The final three trumpet judgments. In the seal judgments, there was a natural division between the first four judgments which were rather general in nature and the final three which specifically applied to Christians, the redeemed. In the trumpet judgments we see a similar pattern — the first four trumpet judgments are general in nature and the last three are more specific, referring to Satan's rule in the hearts of men and in the worldly kingdoms, followed by God's judgment.

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Babylon — Rome and the Roman Empire, representing the world system. 14:8, 16:19, 17:5, 18:2, 18:10 & 18:21

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Euphrates River — The river of Babylon (Rome). The eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. The Parthians who lived to the east were fierce warriors and were a threat to the Roman Empire. They represent the military and political forces which could and would overthrow the Roman Empire. 9:14, 16:12.

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Two Witnesses — Christ and the Church.

Generally, the image of the "two witnesses" refers to the Church as the body of Christ, which warns the world that is about to be judged. Specifically, it refers to the believers during the persecution until the time of Constantine.

In Revelation chapter eleven, the miracles and images regarding the "two witnesses" refer to Moses (the redeemer of God's people) and Elijah (the prophet of God) (Revelation 11:3-12), and it is Christ who is the redeemer and the true prophet.

In Zechariah chapter four the 2 olive trees refer to Zerubbabel (the king) and Joshua (the priest) and it is Christ who is the king and the high priest.

The "two witnesses" refer to the Church age in which the church is a witness to the world.

The two lampstands refer to the lampstands in the temple which speaks of God's witness through the nation of Israel as the light of the world. In the New Testament, Christ and the church are the light of the world:

You [the disciples] are the light of the world. (Mat 5:14) I [Jesus] am the light of the world. (John 8:12)

All these images refer to Christ and His body, the Church. 11:3-12.

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Woman — (1) Israel, and (2) Mary, who gave birth to the Messiah. The woman represents the Church as the true Israel. 12:1

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Dragon — Satan. 12:3

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Beast — Political system or kingdom. 13:1


Mt. Zion — Heaven. The martyrs are there. 14:1

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Seal on their Forehead — Indicates the redemption of believers by faith. God seals those who are His. Only then will He destroy the world by fire — after He has redeemed His own. Since the 144,000 refer specifically to martyrs from the early centuries of the Church, the sealing also represents the special grace that God gives to martyrs which allows them to persevere until the end. 7:3-4, 14:1.

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Great Tribulation — The intense persecution of Christians from the time the book of Revelation was written until Constantine. A major theme of the book of Revelation is to encourage believers, some of whom would be martyred, to persevere in the faith. By way of application, the Great Tribulation represents the trial of all those in the Church Age who have endured and who will endure persecution and martyrdom. 7:14

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Abyss — The place of imprisonment for the demons and for satan. Satan is currently imprisoned there but is still able to operate in the affairs of man (20:1-3). The image of the abyss is used to refer to: (1) the realm of the powers of darkness, and (2) the influence of the powers of darkness, i.e., the Roman Empire (11:7).

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down." (Revelation 12:10)

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Antichrist — This word is not used in the book of Revelation. References to other passages in the Bible:

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which I consider to authoritative):

The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatalogical judgment.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 676

Examples are Socialism, Communism, and other utopian visions.

The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 675

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Armageddon — Means "the mountain of Megiddo." Megiddo is a town on the plain near Mt. Carmel. The defeat and death of Joash (2 Ki 23:29-30) occurred there and it became a symbol of disaster. 16:16.

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Locusts — They bring incredible devastation and are an apt image for God's judgment. 9:3,7.

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Holy City — Jerusalem and by application, the Church. In chapters 21 and 22 it refers to New Jerusalem. 11:2, 21:2, 21:10 22:19.

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Mark of the Beast — Some say this refers to the image of Caesar on the coins. They base this on the idea that without the mark you can't buy or sell:

No one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666. (Revelation 13:17-18)

But we must observe several points:

And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand. (Ex 13:16)

Based on this, a better interpretation is that the mark refers to redemption and to believers who love God, who are committed to Him, and who remember His works on their behalf by having God's wonderful deeds (1) in their minds (forehead), and (2) in their actions (hand).

The reason believers can't buy or sell if they don't have the mark is because Christians were being persecuted by the Roman society. Even in our world today, persecuted social groups are economically disadvantaged. 13:17, 14:9-11, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4.

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Babylon the Great — The Roman Empire. 14:8, 16:19, 17:5, 18:2.

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The Great Prostitute — The woman on red beast. She is the "great city" (17:18), which is Rome. The woman represents the "soul" of the Roman Empire while the beast represents the political and economic realities. 17:1, 17:5, 17:15, 17:16, 19:2.

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First Resurrection — Physical death for believers. All who are believers at death will ultimately be resurrected and spend eternity in heaven. 20:5, 20:6.

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Second Death — Eternal death for unbelievers which is eternity in hell. Judgment at the Great White Throne judgment. 2:11, 20:6, 20:14, 21:8.

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Lake of Burning Sulfur — The Lake of Fire. Eternal damnation for all unbelievers. 19:20, 20:10, 21:8.

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False Prophet — The second beast representing the cult of Emperor worship. 13:11-16, 16:13, 19:20, 20:10.

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Great White Throne — Final judgment for unbelievers in which they will be cast into the Lake of Fire for eternity. 20:11.

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Sea — The word "sea" as the earthly ocean represents:


Lake of Fire — Eternal hell. 20:14, 20:15.

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New Heaven and New Earth — The eternal state in heaven for believers. 21:1.

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New Jerusalem — An image for the New Heaven and New Earth. 3:12, 21:2.

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Great City — Rome. 11:8; 16:19; 17:18; 18:10,16,18,19,21.

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Water of Life — The living water is eternal life in Christ. 21:6, 22:1, 22:17.

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Tree of Life — The redeemed can now live forever in a glorified body. 2:7, 22:2, 22:14, 22:19.

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Jerusalem — See "New Jerusalem." The one reference to the word "Jerusalem" not preceded by word "new" clearly refers to "New Jerusalem" (compare 21:2). 21:10.

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Gog and Magog — Antagonists against God. Based on the passage in Eze 38:2 in which Gog and Magog are enemies of Israel. 20:8.

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White Robe — The martyrs after the 5th Seal were given white robes. The 144,000 (great multitude, 7:9 & 7:13) were wearing white robes which represents their victory and their glorification. Martyrs are given spiritual bodies which others would not receive until final judgment. 6:11, 7:9, 7:13.

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Marriage Feast — The wedding is between Christ and the redeemed. In the context it occurs before the second coming (19:11-20) and refers to the kingdom, which includes all of the redeemed. 19:7, 19:9, 19:17.

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Binding of Satan — Satan is bound because of the victory of Christ on the cross. See 20:2 for a more detailed discussion. He remains bound for the entire Church Age (the 1,000 years). Then he is released (20:3, 20:7) for a short time immediately before the second coming of Christ. He then deceives the nations during a time of apostasy and tribulation for the church. 20:2

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Beloved City — (The city God loves). New Jerusalem which is an image for the New Heaven and New Earth. 20:9

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Unholy Trinity — Read an extended discussion of this topic.

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White — There are two uses of this image, and they are related:

  1. Victorious

    I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. (Revelation 6:2)

    I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. (Revelation 19:11)

  2. Holy and righteous

    His head and hair were white like wool. . . (Revelation 1:14)

    These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:14)

    Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. (Revelation 20:11)

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Desert — 12:6, 12:14, 17:3. This image has several uses:

  1. A place of protection for God's people (12:6, 12:14).

    Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert. . . (John 6:49)

  2. A harsh wilderness. This usage is both literal and figurative (Revelation 17:3).

  3. A place of refuge for the persecuted.

    I would flee far away and stay in the desert. (Psa 55:7)

  4. A place where God tests his people to prove them.

    In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wasteland they put God to the test. (Psa 106:14)

    Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Mat 4:1)

  5. An image that suggests God miraculous ability and desire to redeem His people.

    Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. (Isa 32:2)

    A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD ; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God." (Isa 40:3)

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Fine Linen — Revelation 19:8 states that the image of "fine linen" refers to the righteous acts of the saints. This passage is in the context of heaven, so the image of "fine linen" represents those deeds of believers which were judged as righteous by God. The unrighteous deeds have been purged and are remembered no more. 19:8, 19:14.

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Prayers of the Saints — For justice against those that persecute them. 5:8, 8:3, 8:4.

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Blood — From the plagues of Exodus in which the Nile River, usually a source of life, became blood and a source of death. 8:7, 8:8, 11:6, 16:3, 16:4.

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Wormwood — Bitter. Refers to the agony and sorrow of judgment. 8:10.

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Huge Mountain — Like the brimstone that destroyed Sodom, only much larger (because it was all ablaze). Also, refers to Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law. 8:8.

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Hail and Fire Mixed with Blood — Brimstone as was used to judge Sodom. 8:7.

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Great Star — Like the brimstone that destroyed Sodom, only much larger. 8:10.

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Great Multitude — The 144,000. 7:9, 19:1, 19:6.

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Natural Phenomena — The images of a great earthquake, the sun turning black, the moon becoming blood red, the stars falling to earth, the sky receding like a scroll, and the mountain and islands being removed refer to the destruction of the earth by fire. The images originate from various Old Testament passages concerning God's judgment and God's holiness (for example, the images at Mt. Sinai when God gave the law). 6:12-14, 11:19, 16:18, 16:19, 16:20-21.

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Silence in Heaven — For about a half an hour — the 7th Seal. The eternal state — rest and peace. 8:1.

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Ark of God's Covenant — God's presence. This image appears in the context of God's judgment. 11:19.

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Numbers

I personally don't attach a mystical value and importance to the numerological meanings of the various numbers in the book of Revelation. Certainly there is symbolism in their use, but I consider the use of numbers to be more of a literary device than anything else.

Certainly some numbers such as 7 for "fullness" or 10 for "completion" seem to often demand that we substitute the alternate word in their place. And the time period specified using the number 3 1/2 and all its various derivatives seems to be a definite symbol for the several centuries of persecution and martyrdom of the early church. Other numbers which are clearly symbolic in the book of Revelation and which are used consistently are 1,000, 666, and 144,000. The number 12 seems to refer to both the tribes of Old Testament Israel and to the New Testament Apostles.

Some people place a very mystical meaning to all these numbers, but I consider them as merely replacement words that serve to bring to mind certain images that are associated with the numbers as they are used in the Old Testament, in the Jewish tradition, and in the culture of the day.

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1/3 — Partial judgment for the purpose of warning the people to repent (more info). 8:7-12; 9:14,9:18).

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2 — Two uses:

  1. Two Witnesses
  2. Two horns. The False Prophet had two horns like a lamb. This is an odd image since lambs don't have horns. Christ was the lamb of God and had power in both heaven and earth. The false prophet has power in the spiritual realm and in the earthly realm. (13:11).

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3 — Two uses:

  1. The triune God. Also used for the counterfeit Unholy Trinity. Note: the Unholy Trinity is not an identical copy of the holy trinity.

    The Trinity:

    1. Father
    2. Son
    3. Holy Spirit

    The Unholy Trinity — three evil spirits that looked like frogs (Rev 16:13):

    1. The dragon — Satan
    2. The beast — the world system
    3. The false prophet — false religious systems

  2. The great city split into three parts. The great city represents Rome. The image of "splitting into three parts" speaks of the cities of refuge in which a person who is not guilty of willful sin can be safe from an avenger of blood. 16:19.

    Set aside for yourselves three cities centrally located in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess. Build roads to them and divide into three parts the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that anyone who kills a man may flee there. (Deut 19:2-3)

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3 1/2 — The image of 3 1/2 years applies to the persecution of the Church in the first few centuries, specifically from the time of Domitian until the time of Constantine (read a detailed discussion of this topic). Click here (chapter 7) and here (chapter 12) for additional references to the book of Daniel.

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4 — Earth under judgment by a holy God.

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7 — Fullness or perfection.

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10 — Completion.

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12 — Several uses:

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24 — Two uses:

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42 — 42 months is 3 1/2 years. The image of 3 1/2 years applies to the persecution of the Church in the first few centuries, specifically from the time of Domitian until the time of Constantine.

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666 — The emperor Nero, representing all rulers who persecute Christians. He was the first Roman Emperor to proclaim emperor worship and to persecute Christians. In some Bibles the number is given as 616 which spells "Nero" in Hebrew.

666 is the Greek transliteration for "Nero Caesar" when transliterated into Hebrew. 616, which is a variant reading in some texts, is the Latin transliteration for "Nero Caesar" when transliterated into Hebrew. 13:17

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1,000 — The image of 1,000 years is symbolic. 1,000 years represents the Church Age which will continue until the second coming. 20:2, 20:3, 20:4, 20:5, 20:6, 20:7.

Update Sept. 8, 2013: Since writing this article I've adopted a strictly literal methodology of Bible interpretation. Symbols are real and have a tangible existence in the spiritual realm. The 1,000 years of Revelation 20 is the time from the Resurrection of Jesus to the great schism between eastern and western Christendom in 1,054 A.D.

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1,260 — 1,260 days is 3 1/2 years. The image of 3 1/2 years applies to the persecution of the Church in the first few centuries, specifically from the time of Domitian until the time of Constantine.

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10,000 — 10,000 times 10,000 angels worshipping God. Does this mean exactly 100 million or is it figurative for a very large number? Premillennialists claim to be strictly literal but here is an example where they usually abandon that methodology. 5:11.

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12,000 — 12,000 stadia = 1,600 miles.

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144,000 — The sealed of Israel, both Old Testament and New Testament (the Church = Israel). All the redeemed of all ages. 7:4 & 14:1

The Martyrs, who enter directly into heaven. They are sealed by God so that they will be able to stand firm in the faith unto death. They are unblemished (Ch 14), and suitable sacrifices (as martyrs). Also, the Church which is sealed for protection in the great tribulation, which is the persecution of Christians in the early centuries of the Church.

See "white robe" for more info.

These are the Great Multitude in 7:9, 19:1, 19:6.

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© Copyright 2014 by John Shepard


Please feel free to email:  js19@northforest.org 
 http://www.northforest.org/Eschatology/RevelationGlossary.html End Time Prophecy
 Revised: July 9, 2002