Apart from dispensationalists, few commentators on Revelation try to match the characters and events of the book to particular people and historical incidents. In the view of many commentators, that would be a violation of the character of apocalyptic literature. Marshall Reddish dismisses popular views of the Battle of Armageddon with this: “they turn the Apocalypse, and indeed the rest of the Scriptures, into a deck of religious Tarot cards whereby the ‘spiritually enlightened’ can ‘predict’ specific events that will occur in the world” (Revelation, 319).
Two responses, one theoretical, the other exegetical. Theory first: Reddish writes, “No seven-headed beast will occur at the end of time; no various colored horses will gallop across the world; no swarm of mutant locust-horses will attack the world; and no actual battle will occur at Megiddo” (319). Point taken; but the criticism has few actual targets, since nearly everyone agrees that we shouldn’t expect to see seven-headed sea monsters or locorpion hordes. Virtually everyone knows these are symbols.
Reddish’s criticism confuses literal interpretation with the expectation that a text has real-world reference. Of course, no seven-headed beast; but the real question is, Is there something in history that corresponds to what John sees as a seven-headed beast? Does the picture point to something that will be experienced by real people in history? Does it portray something that is historically verifiable?
Reference isn’t literalism, but it does requires a moment of quasi-literalism; or, if not literalism, a moment of recognizable analogy. “The sower goes out to sow his seed,” Jesus says, and explains that this is the Son of Man’s proclamation of the kingdom. If sowing seed were nothing like proclaiming the kingdom, the parable wouldn’t work. Or, it would work only by force, only because Jesus forced us to think of sowing and preaching together. Jesus is a better poet than that. The parable works because there is a set of analogies between the two activities—preachers “broadcast” their message; words are like seeds that go into a hidden place, begin to grow, and produce fruit; etc.
Likewise, no seven-headed beast, but if there is historical reference then it has to be something like a seven-headed beast – either in its seven-headedness, or in its bestiality, or in some other way. No gigantic whore, but something that resembles a whore, something or someone who has prostituted herself.
But do the characters and events of the Apocalypse have historical reference in this way? One might say that the seven-headed beast corresponds not to some particular historical, verifiable reality, but to a set of historical realities, or to a repeated pattern of historical events, or to some invisible, spiritual reality that secretly affects or dominates history. Which is it?
Here is where the exegetical point needs to be made: As an initial rule-of-thumb stance, we should allow the Apocalypse to set the parameters of its own interpretation. Unfortunately, the text gives us few explicit interpretations of its symbols. But it does provide some, and the few examples are revealing. These examples are consistent with the hermeneutic that Jesus applies to his own parables in the Gospels—the sower is the son of man, the seed is the word, the hard ground is . . . .
Those seven stars in the right hand of Jesus are the “angels of the seven churches.” We still have a lot of interpretive work to do to make sense of that explanation, but we know at least that the stars represent something specific. The heads of the beast are, according to Revelation 17, seven kings, and we’re even told about their sequence. The ten horns are ten kings. That explanation tempts one to speculate on the identity of the kings, and few commentators resist the temptation. But if the Apocalypse’s self-interpretations push us to speculate about historical referents, why should we resist the temptation? Why should we think that the other symbols of Revelation work differently?
In sum: Much to the consternation of erudite commentators, John (like Jesus) sometimes sounds like a pop-dispensationalist, literal-minded street preacher.