The Book of Common Prayer – at least the 1928 edition of the BCP; I go old school on this, as on a lot of things – schedules the reading of Revelation for the evening services during Advent. At first, it may seem that the images of horned beasts and pale horses and lakes of fire don’t fit well with the anticipation of a poor baby born in a feeding trough. But John’s vision tells of events that precede the final coming of the Lord, and reading it at this time makes the season one of preparation for Jesus, whenever and wherever He chooses to come.
The book of Revelation confuses many good Christians. I’ve even heard some say they are afraid to read it. But those who do read it often ask, “What does it mean?” I know I’m just a theory professor with no formal seminary training, but I think I know the right strategy for reading and interpreting Revelation. My hermeneutic? Read it literally. Will everything happen literally as recorded there? Absolutely not. All human speech incorporates figures, so I don’t have any reason to think that all of John’s language is literal. But I don’t know what the figures mean, and I don’t think we can know now.
My strategy comes from thinking about the prophecies of the first Coming. Jesus linked his two Comings and their prophecies when he explained Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah. When asked about Malachi’s words, He said, “Elijah is coming, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him.” In another place, Jesus says that “if we can accept it,” John the Baptist played the part of Elijah at least once. So according to Jesus, Elijah came once in the normal way and once in a figurative way, and he will come again in some way at some time after the discussion, presumably at Jesus’ second Coming.
Now if the prophecies of the two Comings are connected, how did the prophecies work the first time? Herod’s advisors had to search for an answer when asked where the Messiah would be born. How could the industrious Rabbis not already have a clear answer on such an important question? Because the prophecies were confusing and seemingly contradictory. The prophet Hosea reports God saying, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” But Isaiah says the light of the Messiah will come to the land of Galilee. And Micah says the ruler “from ancient days” will come from the little town of Bethlehem, in Judah. These prophecies weren’t clear, couldn’t have been clear, until a baby was born in Bethlehem to parents who lived on the Sea of Galilee and fled to Egypt for a time. No one could have predicted how those conflicting stories would reconcile. The prophecies didn’t exist so that people could work out a solution ahead of time; they existed to give hope in advance of the event and to provide a measure of proof after the event.
So, I reason, we should treat Revelation the same way: read it, know its stories and its images, take hope from them, and be ready to understand them when the time comes. Over the years I’ve heard several explanations of the ten-horned, seven-headed beast from chapter 13, for instance, but none has worked out. I heard once that the EU would attack Israel when it gathered ten members, but that time came and passed quickly. The EU now has twenty-seven members, way too many even for horns and heads put together. I have no idea what the heads and horns correspond to, but when the time comes, the faithful will understand everything they need to know – the faithful, that is, who know the prophecy. If we were intended to have easier, more straightforward access to what it “really” means now, that information would have been provided.
I think that the people who ask “What does this beast mean?” virtually before they read about it miss the point. Our culture has lost its poetry. The beast means a beast. It is magnificent. It is monstrous. It is asymmetrical. And it is memorable. Picture it in your mind. Put one horn on each of four heads and two horns on each of the rest. Or put the seven heads on top of some of the horns. Or think of seventeen necks and put a horn on some and a head on the others. Imagine it however you want, but picture it, and then picture a dragon giving it authority, and then picture people worshiping it. Maybe a picture like the one in your mind shows exactly how the scene will look, and maybe it is only a representation of something else. Either way, it is a poetic image with its own power. Know that image. Think about how that image makes you feel. Think about what you would do if you were in the scene. This is the story the Bible tells. Don’t worry about what it “means.” Know this story. And be prepared.