In this series of articles I am developing a case that the vision shown to John, recorded in the book of Revelation, favors a conditionalist view of hell (the complete and everlasting destruction of the finally impenitent), despite so frequently being cited as support for a traditional view of hell (their everlasting conscious torment). In part one I began to lay a foundation for this case, demonstrating that John did not see the future as it would unfold through literal images but through vivid, apocalyptic images. In this second part I will continue to lay the foundation by examining one of the most critical keys to proper exegesis of the book of Revelation: its heavy reliance upon Old Testament texts, language and imagery.
A rebirth of images
The prominence that the OT is given in the book of Revelation is well known and acknowledged by scholars of all sorts. This may not be readily apparent to the casual reader, particularly those who favor translations which render NT quotations of OT texts in all caps, because John rarely, if ever, directly quotes the OT. Nevertheless, whether the reader realizes it or not, when one reads John’s account of his vision in the book of Revelation one is absolutely inundated with references to the OT—more than when reading any other NT book.
As traditionalists D. A. Carson and G. K. Beale put it, “No other book of the NT is as permeated by the OT as is Revelation. Although its author seldom quotes the OT directly, allusions and echoes are found in almost every verse of the book.” 1 The introduction to a popular Four Views book likewise states, “While Revelation draws on various traditional materials . . . by far the dominant source of its information is the Old Testament. While Revelation does not contain a single specific quotation of the Old Testament, nevertheless out of 404 verses in it, 278 contain allusions to the Old Testament.” 2 In the introduction to his parallel four views commentary on Revelation, Steve Gregg notes that the “symbols of the Book of Revelation are not generally novel or new, most of them having previously been introduced in other portions of Scripture. The book has been called ‘a rebirth of images,’ since it takes imagery familiar from hundreds of Old Testament passages and reworks them into new applications.” 3
The numerous OT references which the book of Revelation alludes to furnish it not merely with the eschatological themes and events represented and foretold by its symbols but also with the very symbols themselves: “Especially close . . . is the connection of the Apocalypse of the New Testament with the Apocalyptic Scriptures of the Old Testament; and that not in regard to the subject-matter alone, but also in respect of its figurative language and its art.” 4 What’s more, the OT did not just provide John with “the language and thought-forms for subsequent attempts to articulate what was seen; it is also claimed that this heritage will have laid down foundational patterns to which visionary experience will conform.” 5 “Certainly the John who has the Old Testament scriptures pulsating through his veins seems to hold these two books at the forefront of his visionary imagination.” 6
Echoes in almost every verse
Revelation’s heavy dependence upon the OT for its language and imagery can be seen from 4:1 to 22:6, verses in which angels bookend the vision by declaring its purpose. In part one of this series I sampled each chapter between these bookends to demonstrate the symbolic nature of John’s vision, from start to finish. A similar such sampling reveals how thoroughly the OT permeates it.
As noted by traditionalist James Hamilton, “The first thing John says in 4:1—‘After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven!’—is not very different from what we read in Ezekiel 1:1: ‘. . . the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.’ . . . John then tells us in 4:2 that ‘a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.’ This is reminiscent of Isaiah 6:1, ‘I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up . . .’ Ezekiel 1:26 also describes one seated on a throne: ‘And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance.’” 7 Hamilton goes on to point out the allusion in verse 3 to Ezekiel 1:28, the allusion in verse 4 to Daniel 7:9-10, the allusion in verse 5 to Ezekiel 1:4, the allusion in verse 6 to Ezekiel 1:22, and so on. 8 Near the opposite bookend, John says in 22:2 that he saw a river flowing from the throne of God, on either side of which grew the tree of life. “This matches the river that ‘flowed out of Eden to water the garden’ in Genesis 2:10 . . . this ‘tree of life’ matches ‘the tree of life . . . in the midst of the garden’ in Genesis 2:9.” 9 (We’ll look again at the tree of life imagery later in this series.)
Chapter 5 opens with John seeing the one on the throne holding a scroll in his right hand: “The right hand of God in the Hebrew scriptures denotes God’s power, particularly his power to save and to execute judgement, which are two sides of the same coin (e.g. Exod. 15:6; Job 40:14; Ps. 48:10; Isa. 41:10; cf. Rom. 1:16–17).” 10 Chapter 6 begins with John being shown a white horse ridden by a conqueror wielding a bow: “The bow was a long-standing weapon of military conquest (for example, 1 Chr. 5:18; Ps. 18:34) . . . The color white . . . echoes one of the colors of the horses in the similar vision described in Zechariah 6:1–8.” 11 In the scene recorded in Chapter 7 John sees angels holding back the four winds: “The four winds blow from heaven (Jer 49:36; Dan 7:2; Zech 6:5); here they are called the four winds of the earth, blowing from north, south, east, and west.” 12 When the Lamb opens the seal at the beginning of Chapter 8, a half hour of silence follows: “Often in the Old Testament, silence precedes judgment of God Almighty on the earth (Hab. 2:20; Zeph. 1:7; Zech. 2:13).” 13
The key to understanding the nature of the trumpet judgments in Revelation chapters 8 through 11, according to Beale, is the formative OT background. “The first five trumpets are patterned after five of the plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians immediately preceding Israel’s exodus,” he notes, 14 the first trumpet of 8:7 corresponding to Exodus 9:22-25, the second and third trumpets of 8:8-11 corresponding to Exodus 7:20-25, the fourth trumpet of 8:12 corresponding to Exodus 10:21-23, and the fifth trumpet of 9:1-11 corresponding to Exodus 10:12-15. Beale notes further, “In the OT, trumpets also announced an alarm that holy battle was to be engaged against Israel’s enemy or against Israel as God’s enemy (e.g., Judg. 7:16-22; Jer. 4:5-21; 42:14; 51:27; Ezek. 7:14; Hos. 8:1; Joel 2:1; Zeph. 1:16).” 15 He elaborates further on the use of trumpets in the OT and how it features in Revelation:
The primary background here is the story of the fall of Jericho, where trumpets announced the impending victory in a holy war. That this is at work in Revelation is evident from the parallel of seven trumpets blown by seven priests (Joshua 6) or seven angels (Revelation 8-9), who are priestly figures (15:5-6). The priests represent God’s authority, which is symbolized by the ark with which they are formally associated (the presence of the ark in Rev. 8:3-5 is implied by the explicit reference in 11:19). And in both Joshua and Revelation “silence” precedes the trumpet judgment. 16
After likewise noting the parallels between Revelation’s trumpets and the plagues of the Exodus, Hamilton explains how John’s vision continues to draw from Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. “Just as Israel was led out of Egypt through the wilderness to the promised land by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, so now in Revelation an angel who is wrapped in a cloud and has legs like pillars of fire is going to lead God’s people.” 17 The angel roars like a lion in Revelation 10:3, reminding us “that when God arises to save and judge, he roars like a lion,” 18 as in Joel 3:16 and Amos 1:2. As Ezekiel was given a scroll to eat, which tasted as sweet as honey (Ezek. 3:1-3), so too is John given a sweet (but also bitter) scroll to eat (Revelation 10:9-10). Whereas Ezekiel had watched as the temple was measured in Ezekiel 40-48 (cf. Zechariah 2:1-5), John himself is told to measure the temple in Revelation 11:1.
“In Isaiah 66:6–9, a voice from the Temple precedes the description of Jerusalem-Zion as a woman in labour,” 19 like the pregnant woman in birth pains John saw in Revelation 12. “In the Old Testament, Israel is often compared to a woman, and even a woman in travail (Isa. 54:5; 66:7; Jer. 3:6–10; Micah 4:10; 5:2–3).” 20 Regarding the woman John sees is clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, crowned with twelve stars: “The stars are signs of the twelve tribes of Israel, eleven of which bow down, along with the sun and moon, before Joseph’s star in Gen. 37:9.” 21 John watches as a great red dragon awaits to devour the woman’s child: “There was always a ‘dragon’ standing by, waiting to destroy Israel or the ancestors of the Messiah. Pharaoh is called a ‘dragon’ (Ezek. 29:3), and so is Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 51:34).” 22 As for the dragon’s tail sweeping a third of the stars from the sky, casting them down to earth, “This is very similar to the description of the ‘little horn’ in Daniel 8:10, where he makes war on the host of Heaven, throws the stars to the ground, and tramples them. This seems to match the way the Old Testament describes other kings in satanic terms, such as the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 and the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28.” 23
This has been but a small sampling of the many allusions to the OT in just the first nine chapters of Revelation after John is taken to heaven and shown his vision. It would take an article of unwieldy length to list the additional OT references which have been skipped, not to mention the myriad OT echoes found in the remaining ten chapters.
The Spirit of prophecy
Because John’s vision so heavily draws from the OT, one cannot hope to interpret the book of Revelation correctly without carefully considering what the language and symbols it records meant in the OT. John’s epistle “cannot be understood without the Old Testament since it uses images from Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah” and “has parallels or allusions to most books of the Old Testament.” 24 “This means that you can’t take any of his statements at ‘face value,’ because in general they will be composed so as to depend for their meaning on their relationship with a whole network of OT prophetic Scriptures. Try to read them without taking this background into account, and you can be guaranteed to misinterpret them.” 25
While the Holy Spirit has the freedom to use OT symbols differently in the NT, nevertheless he is “the same Spirit of prophecy that inspired the Old Testament penmen. And those Old Testament writings, more than any other literature of any description, are still our best guide to understanding the sometimes-bizarre characters and the often-puzzling events that this final book of Scripture lays before our blinking eyes.” 26 “Therefore, even though John handles these OT figures with creative freedom, almost always these pictures broadly retain an essential OT association and convey principles of continuity between the OT and the NT.” 27
John did not merely exercise carte blanche creative license, repurposing OT language and imagery as he pleased in order to communicate whatever he wished. “This . . . fits poorly within the first-century Jewish milieu, where the integrity of a movement such as early Christianity would be judged by its coherence with the OT message.” 28 Certainly it’s legitimate to ask the question, “Should Revelation be interpreted in the light of the OT, or should the OT be interpreted in the light of Revelation? Put more pointedly, Which body of material takes interpretive precedence?” 29 But the answer to that question is that they share mutual, reciprocal interpretive precedence, for “even in the second approach the OT remains the foundation for John’s proclamation, and it is assumed that John fully respects the theological contours of OT texts in interpretively developing them.” 30 Yes, “‘progressive revelation’ is crucial in understanding the OT and John’s book, as it is for all of the NT. On the other hand, of course, such ‘progressive revelation’ must not be separated from prior revelation, since it builds on and develops the earlier revelation with hermeneutical integrity.” 31
When we come, then, to the passages in Revelation which are so hotly debated by traditionalists and conditionalists, we cannot simply read the text as if what is depicted in the imagery settles the debate. We must first carefully consider how OT language and symbols feature in those passages, and how their original use may inform their meaning in John’s vision. In upcoming articles in this series we’ll do just that, as I make my case that those hotly debated passages teach conditionalism. But first, another key, arguably more critical to proper exegesis of Revelation, must be discussed, which we’ll look at in part three.
- D. A. Carson & G. K. Beale, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker, 2007), Kindle edition, p. 1081.
- C. Marvin Pate, ed., Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Zondervan, 2010), Kindle edition, loc. 159-162.
- Steve Gregg, Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1997), 20.
- John Peter Lange et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (Logos Bible Software, 2008), 44–45.
- Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John, Black’s New Testament Commentary (Continuum, 2006), 4.
- Ibid., 24.
- James M. Hamilton, Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches (Crossway, 2012), 131.
- Ibid., 131-132.
- Ibid., 402-404.
- Boxall 2006, 94.
- Kendell H. Easley, “Revelation,” Holman New Testament Commentary, ed. Max Anders (Broadman & Holman, 1998), 12:106.
- Robert G. Bratcher & Howard Hatton, A Handbook on the Revelation to John, UBS Handbook Series (United Bible Societies, 1993), 122.
- Richard K. Eckley, Revelation: a Commentary for Bible Students (Wesleyan, 2006), 117.
- Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Eerdmans, 1999), 465.
- Ibid., 468.
- Hamilton 2012, 223.
- Boxall 2006, 178.
- Warren W. Wiersbe, “Be Victorious: Revelation,” The Bible Exposition Commentary (Victor, 1996). No page reference generated by Logos Bible Software. See his comments on Revelation 12:1 in the chapter “The Terrible Trio: Revelation 12-13.”
- Boxall 2006, 178.
- Wiersbe 1996.
- Hamilton 2012, 248.
- Easley 1998, 12:2.
- J. Webb Mealy, The End of the Unrepentant: A Study of the Biblical Themes of Fire and Being Consumed (Wipf & Stock, 2013), 75.
- Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. (Cascade, 2011), 236.
- Carson & Beale, p. 1085.
- Ibid., p. 1088.