Richard D. Draper, “Understanding Images and Symbols in the Book of Revelation,” Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 271–89.
New Testament Brought to Light, Understanding Images and Symbols in the Book of Revelation
Richard D. Draper
Richard D. Draper is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.
The Lord said that He “knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes” (D&C 38:2). The context of His words suggests He was referring to history. Indeed, as the Prophet Joseph Smith observed, “The past, the present, and the future were and are, with Him, one eternal ‘now.’” The book of Revelation emphasizes that fact. John’s work stands as a testament of the foreknowledge of God and has thereby given hope and assurance through nearly two millennia. Its message for the righteous continues to promote comfort and confidence. The book’s assurance comes primarily from showing the past and present Saints what is to come and, thus, preparing them for the future. Indeed, there are no other people for whom the work is more germane.
That fact, however, does not mean that the book is easy reading. One scholar without the benefit of the restored gospel described Revelation as a book that finds a man mad or leaves him that way. Many, even among the Saints, who have labored through its maze would agree. But God gave the vision and preserved it because it had a message for those living in the latter days as well as those living in the meridian of time, and therefore it is important that His Saints understand it. Fortunately, through the Restoration, the Lord has revealed a number of keys to unlock the secrets of the book. Thus, Joseph Smith declared that the book “is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.” It may be true that he was helped because, as has been facetiously pointed out, he saw the movie. Even so, the standard works provide all the Saints with a solid resource for understanding the book’s message.
Due to the vast amounts of symbols Revelation contains, this paper can focus on only a few of them. Therefore, keeping with the theme of this volume as a whole, only those scriptures receiving attention from Joseph Smith along with others on which the Restoration can shed light are examined here.
The Nature of Apocalyptic Style
The reader must not go into Revelation expecting the logical and well-developed themes of most of the sc
This example shows how God uses symbols as a means of communicating ideas. Symbols freed John to represent transcendental and spiritual experiences. The Lord employs symbols in almost every sentence of the revelation. But He did not create them ex nihilo; these symbols are consistent with the Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic literature. Indeed, in Revelation, the Lord uses the words, phrases, images, and patterns of the ancient covenant as a kind of language arsenal that undergirded and propelled the message which John’s contemporaries clearly understood.
Important among the symbols used was that of numbers. One must be careful in taking them too literally, however. Near Eastern literature, not just Hebrew, reveals a fondness for using numbers to communicate ideas. When used this way, they take on a qualitative rather than a quantitative meaning. Why certain numbers became laden with symbolic meaning is unknown; in most cases the meanings arose du
For example, the numbers 4, 7, 12, and 1,000 denote aspects of wholeness, or completeness: the first to the world, the second to totality or fullness, the third to p
The number of those called to service in the last days, 144,000, is instructive. As noted, they are high priests called as missionaries in the last days. The message, however, is not in the quantity, for again the number need not be taken literally, but in the quality. Twelve represents priesthood. Multiplying the number by itself adds wholeness (as would multiplying it by seven). Thus, the number denotes the quality of priesthood held by those who are God’s servants in the last days. For this reason, one need not worry that chapter 7 leaves out the tribe of Dan from the list of those called to God’s service. It is all symbolic. There will be many Danites in God’s kingdom, but John may have left the tribe out because, according to popular Jewish myth, the anti-Christ was to arise from that tribe, and John worked to put down any form of idolatry.
The Vision Given in Code
There is a good reason why the book is less than clear. According to the Book of Mormon, the Bible went through the hands of a “great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away” (1 Nephi 13:26). Members of this church acted to pervert the gospel and lead men astray.
The Lord needed to get His message concerning the last days through the editors of the great and abominable church. One way was to hide the message in symbols. John therefore did not choose the form of the vision; God did. The form is now called “apocalyptic.” It provided John with the means of being able to write in a kind of divine code, and it seems to have worked well for him. Though there are more variant manuscript readings of the text of Revelation than that of any other New Testament book, these are not sufficient to cause uncertainty on the meaning of a single paragraph taken as a whole. We are fortunate to live in a day when living prophets have opened the meaning of many of these symbols once more.
One cannot fully appreciate the message of the book, therefore, until one can see past the symbols to the vast realities for which they stand. Fortunately, Revelation is quite helpful in the task. In a few instances it actually interprets the symbol for the reader. For example, the seven stars in chapter 1 represent the leaders of the various congregations of the Church, while the candlesticks represent the churches (see verses 12, 16, 20). In chapter 17, the “waters” symbolize nations and peoples under the power of spiritual
The reader should be aware that John uses his symbols as a means of presentation, rather than as an attempt to analyze or prove a point. One value of symbolic representation is the layers of meaning it can generate. Readers must therefore fix their attention not upon the image but upon the ideas that the image portrays. Keep in mind that God did not design the images for pictorial representation. They come through the mind of a poet, not the pen of an illustrator. Further, John consistently records the full complement of his images to produce understanding about the prophetic matrix upon which he is focusing.
For example, in chapter 14, the vision opens with a lamb standing with 144,000 upon Mount
The strength of the Apocalypse lies in its ability to communicate its prophetic message by inviting the reader to imaginative participation. God designed the symbols to communicate ideas in a vivid and arresting manner while John developed the narrative flow of the book to produce emotions, reactions, and understanding that would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, through conventional language. Consider the image of the great enemy of the Lord, the dragon of chapter 12. The Greek word drak?n signifies a serpent or sea monster but is best understood as the personification of impotent and seething chaos, often represented as the dark, primeval waters that oppose not only God but also all that is holy. It is no minor power. Indeed, in the Old Testament it represents that force which only God can subdue. The distinguishing feature of the monster is its insatiable cruelty. It is demonic in its genesis and intent, and as such is the perfect type of Satan at his worst.
John sets this symbol against that of the virtuous woman, who represents poise, harmony, beauty, and life-giving creation. Teachings from the Restoration identify her as the Church, whose issue is the political
In this context the significance of the dragon’s color is heightened. It is fiery red, the color of that which engulfs and consumes. The color seems to suggest the despiteful, violent, and murderous means by which Satan, the dragon, brings about his ends.
The dragon has seven crown-wearing heads and ten horns. The crowns are not the laurels of a victor, which the woman wears, but diadems, symbols of political domination. The scriptures never depict Satan wearing laurels because he wins no permanent victories. He does, however, have temporary power over certain kingdoms and institutions represented by the heads.
The numbers are significant. The seven crowned heads suggest the universality of his rule as the king of chaos. They represent Satan’s pseudo-claim to royalty, which John describes as wearing many diadems (see Revelation 19:12–16), set against that of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
The horns denote the dragon’s all-pervasive and false sovereignty. Horns symbolize power. Ten represents the part of a whole, but not the whole itself. Thus, the dragon has great power, but John shows that he does not have all power; some portion is lacking. This is not true of the Lamb whom John depicts with seven horns, the symbol of fullness (5:6). Thus, John’s metaphors subtly show that the dragon is indeed powerful, but the Lamb is more so and therefore will take down the dragon.
The Great Enemies of the Last Days
The picture John paints in chapter 13 continues; the dragon has more than one assistant. The other is a lamb, a diabolical and perverse image of the Lord. The lamb has two horns, the number suggesting witnesses, that help identify what it represents—false philosophies and doctrines. It is buying into these that cause institutions and governments to follow after the dragon.
With the coming of the false prophet, a wolf in lamb’s clothing, the evil triumvirate stands complete. Now they can imitate by deception the true Godhead. As the Son has his two witnesses, so too the dragon has his two monsters; as the Son draws his power from the Father, so too the first beast draws authority from the dragon; as the Holy Ghost glorifies the Son, so too the evil lamb glorifies the first beast. There is little doubt but that John exposes them in symbolic terms as the counterfeit godhead, the beguiling revelators, and the false lawgivers, whose powers will rule through the last days.
The second beast never comes fully into view but remains in the background, the deceptive distance catching those who might not otherwise be attracted to the first beast, and in this way betrays people into the worship of the latter. Indeed its whole function seems to be to seduce mankind into this false worship. And what is the objective of worship? In a word, materialism: the ability to buy and sell and to get gain.
John lays before the reader the ter
The seer shows that this power will stoke the destructive forces of the latter days. Slowly genuine humility and brotherhood will be surpressed under a vast and complex coercion of sophisticated and bewitching propaganda and the brutality of pragmatism and unrestrained egotism. The beasts can gain control only because of the fallen and spiritually degenerate state brought about by evil and indifference and ambivalence toward good in mankind.
The real issue is worship. The battle is for the hearts and minds of mankind. The objective of the false lamb is to get men to worship the beast. Thus, the false prophet takes on a priestly role with pseudoreligious authority. A false religion drives the people, blinded by selfishness and lust, into the worship of secular power that is able to explain away real miracles. The result is the universal victory of secular humanism in which God is denied and mankind is exalted.
Out of this philosophy and its worldliness come the “miracles” of the age. Such miracles have deceived many into false faith and blinded many into a false security. Willingly, the deluded follow the ways of the first beast.
The Mark of the Beast
No discussion of Revelation would be complete without at least mentioning the one number most associated with the work, 666. John associates the number with the mark of the beast. Understanding the nature of the mark opens the meaning of the number. The seer uses the Greek term charagma, “mark,” which denotes a stamp, etching, engraving, or impression. It also describes the brand a master places upon an animal or a slave. The word’s most important connotation, however, may be that it describes the mark left by a serpent’s bite.
The objective of the beast is that “all, both small and great,
The mark of the monster consists of the letters of its name written in its numerical equivalent. Most ancient people did not have a separate numbering system and alphabet, so letters also served as numbers. Generally the first nine letters of the alphabet stood for numbers one through nine, the next nine for numbers ten through nineteen, and so on. Anciently, some had fun making up riddles by translating a name into its numerical equivalent. For example, a line of graffiti from
Scholars and amateurs both have suggested many ingenious solutions ranging in possibilities from single individuals to whole institutions. However, the whole problem is fraught with difficulties. First, there are two manuscript traditions. The majority give the number 666, but a significant number of others give 616. Second, the meaning may require the use of the digamma, an archaic letter that was dropped out of use in the Greek alphabet before John’s day but sometimes retained for use as the number 6.
Taking the Greek as it stands, John’s
But a specific historical entity may not be what John had in mind. It may be that he was portraying a spiritual condition. As the mark and the number cannot be separated, so, too, the mark and the worship of the beast cannot be separated. The mark stands for the beast. In such a case, the number 6 would stand in contrast to the number 7, God’s number. The number 6 would then be that which comes the closest to perfection, and 666 falls short in each of its digits. In that light, it represents a trinity of imperfection: the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet (see chapters 12 and 13). Partaking of the mark signifies spiritual devotion of the beast. It designates those who throughout time have been bitten by the serpent from the sea and who carry its venom in their veins.
We can see that although symbols make Revelation difficult to read, they also give the book a depth and richness when properly interpreted. For example, at the end of his vision, John saw the future celestial kingdom and those who gained it. One feature of the vision is arresting. John’s angel guide showed him “a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1). John specifically states that the river represents the waters of life. But there is more to it. The source of the water is important. It flows from “the throne of God and of the Lamb”—not two thrones but one. The point seems to be that there is only one source of life—God Himself. Sharing in the responsibility, however, is the Son, who ever stands as “the very eternal Father of heaven and of earth, and all things which in them are” (Alma 11:39). Thus John calls Him “the Word” (John 1:1; see also vv. 2–3) and notes that all things have their being because of Him. Indeed, is gospel is symbolized as “living water,” and “whosoever drinketh of the water that [the Lord] shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that the [the Lord gives] shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). Thus both the Father and the Son occupy the same throne, for life flows from both. There is, however, yet another and more significant symbol for water. Nephi saw that the “waters are a representation of the love of God” (1 Nephi 11:25). Herein lies the power of the water. It bequeaths and sustains life because it is love—pure and unaffected.
Thus we see how symbols work to the Lord’s end. On one level they have protected the message from being lost or diluted through two millennia by corrupted hands. On another level, one based on insights from the Restoration, they have provided the message with a richness and depth of understanding that allows the Latter-day Saints to appreciate the Lord and His work more fully.
 Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 220.
 Northrop Frye, “Typology: Apocalypse,” in The Revelation of
 In response to the question, “Are we expected to understand the book of Revelation?” Elder Bruce R. McConkie stated: “Certainly. Why else did the Lord reveal it? The common notion that it deals with beasts and plagues and mysterious symbolisms that cannot be understood is just not true. It is so far overstated that it gives an entirely erroneous feeling about this portion of revealed truth. Most of the book—and it is no problem to count the verses so included—is clear and plain and should be understood by the Lord’s people. Certain parts are not clear and are not understood by us—which, however, does not mean that we could not understand them if we would grow in faith as we should. The Lord expects us to seek wisdom, to ponder his revealed truths, and to gain a knowledge of them by the power of his Spirit” (“Understanding the Book of Revelation,” Ensign, September, 1975, 87). In his Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Elder McConkie further stated, “We are in a much better position to understand those portions of Revelation which we are expected to understand than we generally realize. Thanks be to the interpretive material found in sections 29, 77, 88, and others of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants [and other latter-day scriptures]; . . . we have a marvelously comprehensive and correct understanding of this otherwise hidden book” [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973], 3:431).
 Smith, Teachings, 290.
 This statement has been around so long that I have no idea who originally stated it.
 For discussion, see David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, Word Biblical Commentary 52a (Dallas: Word Books, 1977), 1:1xx–civ.
 See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 681–84.
 For a discussion of the tie of images to the Old Testament, see Beale, Revelation, 58–64.
 See A. Y. Collins, “Numerical Symbolism in Jewish and Early Christian Apocalyptic Literature,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt (1984), 2.21.2:1221–87.
 For John’s use of numbers see Beale, Revelation, 58–64.
 For discussion on the number 12, see Homer Hailey and Charles R. Erdman, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 41; Charles R. Erdman, The Revelation of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 15.
 Stephen E. Robinson has effectively argued that the word “church” would best be understood as “organization” in “Early Christianity and First Nephi 13–14,” in The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monte Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 178.
 In the 400 verses of Revelation there are about 1,650 variant readings (these do not include different spellings of the same word) in the five available uncials. In comparison, the general epistles contain 432 verses and contain about 1,100 variants with considerably more manuscript sources and, therefore, the potential for an even greater number of discrepancies (see Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John [New York: Macmillan, 1919; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967], 411, and for an updated discussion see Beale, Revelation, 70–86, and Aune, Revelation 1–5, cxxxiv–clx).
 Though there are gospel truths revealed in the standard works, the Doct
 The Joseph Smith Translation changes “angels” to “servants.” This agrees with the sense of the original Greek, since the term “angel” denoted both a mortal and immortal servant of God. Technically, John did not see candlesticks but rather lampstands. Candles had not yet been invented.
 See also 4:5; 5:6; 11:8; 12:9; 17:3, 9; 19:8.
 Erdman, Revelation: An Introduction, 15.
 There are limitations, however. For example, Doctrine and Covenants 88 uses many of the images found in Revelation, but it recasts and rearranges them for its own purpose.
 See, for example, 8:1; 9:14–15; 10:3–4; 12:15–16; 13:3, 18.
 Austin Farrar, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse (Boston: Beacon, 1963), 19.
 Erdman, Revelation: An Introduction, 14.
 Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 22.
 Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), s.v. “δρ?κων.” The symbol reaches way back in antiquity, being found among the Mesopotamians as both Tiamat and Labbu, among the Egyptians as Apophis, the main symbol of the typhoon along with the crocodile. In the Old Testament, it has the name of Rahab (Isaiah 51:9–10; Job 26:12–13), Leviathan (Psalm 74:12–19; Isaiah 27:1), and the dragon of the sea (Job 7:12; Ezekiel 29:3–6; 32:2–8). See Aune, Revelation 1–5, 2:682–83.
 See discussion, see
 Walter Scott, Exposition of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1979), 249–50.
 Joseph Smith noted that when the prophets speak of beasts they mean images, “they being types to represent certain things. At the same time they received the interpretation as to what those images or types were designed to represent” (Teachings, 291). He stated, further, that the word dragon is actually a mistranslation and should be rendered devil (see Smith, History of the Church, 5:345; compare Beale, Revelation, 632–35).
 Jesus said of his adversaries, “Ye are of your father the devil. . . . He was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).
 Note the inconsistency. There are either too many or too few horns for the heads. But God is not creating an image to be pictured but rather communicating through symbols the nature of the thing He describes. Interestingly the Ugaritic sea monster Leviathan possessed seven heads (see A. Herdner, Corpus des tablettes en cunéiforms alphabétiques [Paris: University of Paris, 1963], 3.IIID.39; 5.I.3, and the idea is repeated in the Od Sol 22.5).
 A nuance of the Greek is missed in the King James Version because very different Greek words, stephanos and diad?ma, are both translated by the word crown. A stephanos was a headpiece won by an Olympic athlete or a victo
 Hailey, Revelation, 270.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 237–38.
 For example, the term ten tribes is used to represent that portion of
 Mounce, Revelation, 258–59.
 Many commentaries view the images of the beast and the lamb as aspects of
 Hugh W. Nibley used this term in a lecture I attended in 1971.
 Emil Bock, The Apocalypse of
 Mounce, Revelation, 259.
 Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary, s.v. “charagma.”
 Both God and Satan can seal people to themselves. See Mosiah 5:15 in contrast to
 Adolf Deissman, Fight from the Ancient Near East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 277. Among the Jews the practice was known as gematria. Many rabbis looked for esoteric meanings in the numbers found in the Old Testament. For example, Abraham is said to have taken 318 trained men to rescue
 Some popular suggestions include, for an individual, the emperor Titus (Greek teitan, where t=300, e=5, t=10, i=300, a=1, n=5); for a nation, the Romans (Greek lateinos, where l=30, a=1, t=300, e=5, i=10, n=50, o=70, s=200). There are other names that work as well, like the Greek man’s name euanthas (where e=5, u=400, a=1, n=50, t=9, a=1, s=200). On these, see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.30.3. Some have argued for Nero, the initiator of Ch
 See Beale, Revelation, 720–28.
 A significant number of ancient manuscripts give the number as 616. This is arresting because this is the number of Nero’s name if one leaves it in Latin. The phenomenon suggests that many Christians from the second to fourth centuries saw Nero or someone like him as the archenemy.
 Beale, Revelation, 726–27.
 For a broad spectrum of views on the subject, see Erdman, Revelation: An Introduction, 114; Hailey, Revelation, 297–99; Mounce, Revelation, 264–65.