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Signs And Symbols


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#1 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 02:04 AM

In Scripture, and particularly in prophecy, symbols are to be interpreted according to context.

The use of symbols in Scripture follows very strict rules, which, once understood, will enable us to avoid errors in our exposition.

The two main governing principles are:
  • That one entity is used to represent another on the basis that some quality or attribute of the first is in some way appropriate to, or shared by, the second

  • That on this basis, a symbol is used to represent not an entity itself, as such, but rather a certain quality of that entity
All uses of Scriptural symbolism can be identified as belonging to one of two separate classes:
  • Archetypal representation

  • Polyvalent representation
Archetypal representation is the use of one master pattern (the archetype), to represent a particular concept, or class. This archetype is described with many synonymous terms.

One essential concept (the archetype), represented with many synonymous terms (different ways of describing the same concept) - think of it as one concept described by many terms.

Polyvalent representation is the use of one term which is used to represent many different concepts or entities. This is the opposite of archetypal representation.

One term which may be used to represent different concepts or entities - think of it as one term used to describe many concepts.

It is critical to understand these principles in order to understand the way in which symbolism is used in Scripture, especially where prophecy is concerned.

In order to explain these two concepts further, let's have a look at some examples.

#2 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 02:06 AM

As mentioned previously, archetypal representation is the use of one master pattern to describe a particular concept.

That master pattern (the archetype), may be described with many different terms, but those terms will always be synonymous - they will be saying the same thing.
Archetypal respresentation is the representation of one essential concept (the archetype), with many different terms which express that same concept.

For example, let's take the concept of an individual who is obedient to God. As we have seen in our studies from the first few chapters of this work, the concept of an obedient individual is an archetype, an essential concept which is repeated through Scripture and used as a pattern.

An individual who is obedient to God is a particular class of individual, an archetype.

Individuals of this class can be given many different terms, all of which are used to describe the fundamental characteristic of that class - their obedience to God.

In Scripture, this archetypal 'obedient class' is described using many different terms:
  • The sons of God (Job 1:6, Revelation 21:7)

  • The seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15, Revelation 12:17)

  • The servants of God (1 Peter 2:16)

  • The righteous (1 Peter 3:12)

  • The faithful servant (Matthew 25:1)

  • The followers of God (Ephesians 5:1)
These are all different terms, but they all convey the same sense - they all convey the concept of obedience to God. All of them describe one class of people, the sameclass of people - individuals who are obedient to God.

This is archetypal representation, one master pattern or concept (the archetype), which is described using a number of terms which are synonymous - though they may be different phrases, they all convey the same concept, in this case the concept of obedience to God.

Archetypal representation follows this very simple principle, which makes it far easier to comprehend than polyvalent representation, which is where many of us become confused.

#3 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 02:07 AM

As mentioned previously, polyvalent representation is the use of one particular term in many ways, to describe a variety of concepts or entities.

All of these concepts or entities, however, will be related to the term which is used to describe them. They will be related insofar as they will all share some characteristic of the term or entity used to represent them.

For example, let's take the term 'brass'. This is a polyvalent term, a term which is used to represent in symbol many different entities, all of which share some particular characteristic of brass.

Brass has a number of characteristics:
  • The brass of Bible times was reddish in colour

  • It was one of the strongest metals known in Bible times

  • It was considered a base metal, not worth very much at all
Therefore, brass can be used to represent:
  • Something which is reddish in colour

  • Something which is strong

  • Something which is not very valuable, or something which is considered base
Polyvalent representation follows these two strict principles:
  • One entity is used to represent another on the basis that some quality or attribute of the first is in some way appropriate to, or shared by, the second

  • On this basis, a term is used to represent not an entity itself, as such, but rather a certain quality of that entity
The result is that one symbol (brass, for example), may be used to represent any entity which shares some of the characteristics of brass, and this means that brass will not always be representing the same entity.

Edited by Fortigurn, 29 November 2003 - 02:07 AM.


#4 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 02:10 AM

Let's examine the use of brass in Scripture, just to illustrate this principle.

Daniel 2:
39And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth.
40And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.


These two kingdoms of the image are represented by brass and iron respectively.
Why is this the case? It is in accordance with the continuity of the symbolism of the entire image, for as each successive kingdom was stronger than that which proceeded it, so was it less wealthy.

Silver is stronger than gold, but less expensive, brass is stronger than silver, but likewise not as valuable, and iron is stronger still than brass, but was held to be of less worth.

The verse which describes the kingdom of iron specifically mentions the reason why iron is being used in this context:

Daniel 2:
40And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.


It is the strength of the iron which is being used to represent this kingdom, just as the strength of brass is appealed to frequently in Scripture to represent something strong.

A few examples are:

Deuteronomy 33:25
25 Thy shoes shall be iron and brass; and as thy days, so shall thy strength be.

Job 6:12
12 Is my strength the strength of stones? or is my flesh of brass?

Job 40:18
18 His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

Job 41:27
27 He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood.


The following passages in Daniel also contain references to brass and iron in the context of strength:

Daniel 7:
7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.
19 Then I would know the truth of the fourth beast, which was diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were of iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with his feet;


If we were to suppose that these references to iron and brass only represent the power of Greece and Rome, then what are we to make of the following references:

Micah 4:
13 Arise and thresh, O daughter of Zion: for I will make thine horn iron, and I will make thy hoofs brass: and thou shalt beat in pieces many people: and I will consecrate their gain unto the LORD, and their substance unto the Lord of the whole earth.

Daniel 10:
6 His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude.

Revelation 1:
15 And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.

Revelation 2:
18 And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass;
27 And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father.


Surely we would not equate these references to Christ with the obvious references in Daniel 2 to Greece and Rome, neither would we identify this figure with the fourth beast in Daniel 7, despite the fact that both have feet of brass, which they use to trample and destroy?

Edited by Fortigurn, 10 December 2003 - 11:45 PM.


#5 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:11 AM

Let's have a closer look at the manner in which polyvalent representation functions.

Remember the two principles on which polyvalent representation is based:
  • One entity is used to represent another on the basis that some quality or attribute of the first is in some way appropriate to, or shared by, the second

  • On this basis, a term is used to represent not an entity itself, as such, but rather a certain quality of that entity
The result is that one symbol (brass, for example), may be used to represent any entity which shares some of the characteristics of brass, and this means that brass will not always be representing the same entity.

#6 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:11 AM

Now follows a list of examples of polyvalent representation, in order to illustrate how these principles apply.

The examples are listed in this style:

Symbol - That which is being used to represent another entity

Quality - That quality of the entity used as a symbol which is shared by, or appropriate to, the entity which is being represented

Application - A Scriptural application of the symbol to an entity in this way

Proof quote - An example from Scripture of the application

In some examples, such as the first, evidence of multiple applications will be given.

#7 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:12 AM

EXAMPLE 1


Symbol: Eagle
Quality/ies: Speed, strength

One application: The saints

Proof quote:

Isaiah 40:
31But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.


A second application: Babylon

Proof quote:

Lamentations 4:
19Our persecutors are swifter than the eagles of the heaven: they pursued us upon the mountains, they laid wait for us in the wilderness.


Here the same term (the eagle), is used to represent two different entities (one the saints, the other Babylon), on the basis that they both share particular characteristics of the eagle (speed and strength).

#8 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:14 AM

EXAMPLE 2


Symbol: Wine
Quality/ies: 1) Nourishment, 2) an agent of intoxication, and 3) a red liquid extracted by means of bruising the body which holds it

One application: As nourishment, that which imparts health and wellbeing - a beverage with medicinal properties

Proof quote:

1 Timothy 5:
23Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.


A second application: As an agent of intoxication, that which confuses and renders insensible - the doctrines of Babylon/Rome

Proof quote:

Revelation 17:
2...the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.


A third application: As a red liquid, extracted by means of breaking the body which holds it - blood

Proof quote:

Isaiah 63:
3 I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.


Here the same term (wine), is used to represent three different entities or concepts (a medicinal drink, false doctrine, and blood), on the basis that they all share particular characteristics of wine (nourishment, intoxication, a red liquid which is extracted by breaking the body which holds it).

#9 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:14 AM

EXAMPLE 3


Symbol: A yoke
Quality/ies: An implement of service, that which is used to subdue

One application: Used of animals - kine used to draw the Ark

Proof quote:

1 Samuel 6:
7...milch kine, on which there hath come no yoke...



A second application: Used of people - Israel under her foes

Proof quote:

Deuteronomy 28:
48...he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until He have destroyed thee.


Here the same term (the yoke), is used to represent two different entities (one the service of the animals bearing the ark, the other the service of Israel), on the basis that they both share a particular characteristic of those under a yoke (servitude or bondage).

#10 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:15 AM

EXAMPLE 4


Symbol: Fire
Quality/ies: 1) An agent of destruction, and 2) an agent of refining

One application: As an agent of destruction - Divine judgment

Proof quote:

Psalm 80:
16It is burned with fire, it is cut down: they perish at the rebuke of Thy countenance.


A second application: As an agent of refining - the trials which purify faith

Proof quote:

1 Peter 1:
7That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold which perisheth, though it be tried with fire...


Here the same term (fire), is used to represent two different concepts (one judgment and destruction, the other refining and purification), on the basis that they both share a particular characteristic of that for which fire can be an agent (destruction or refining).

#11 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:16 AM

EXAMPLE 5


Symbol: Fig tree

Quality/ies: 1) A domestic plant associated, like the vine, with prosperity due to its rich fruit, and 2) a tree with fruit which falls easily when ripe

One application: As a domestic plant associated, like the vine, with prosperity - peace and prosperity

Proof quote:

Zechariah 3:
10In that day, saith Yahweh of Armies, shall ye call every man his neighbour under the vine and under the fig tree.


A second application: As a tree with fruit which falls easily when ripe - the instability of Nineveh when faced with Divine judgment

Proof quote:

Nahum 3:
12All thy strong holds shall be like fig trees with the firstripe figs: if they be shaken, they shall even fall into the mouth of the eater.


Here the same term (the fig tree), is used to represent two different concepts (one peace and prosperity, the other instability), on the basis that they both share a particular characteristic of the fruit of the fig (the richness of the fruit, the ease with which the fruit falls when ripe).

#12 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:18 AM

Examples could be multipled, but it is evident even from this brief summary that a symbol in Scripture may be used to represent any entity to which one or more of the qualities of the representative are appropriate.

Thus:
  • Gold does not always represent tried faith, but it does always represent something valuable, incorruptible, or refined

  • A fig tree does not always represent Israel, but it does always represent something prosperous, or unstable

  • An eagle does not always represent Rome, but it does always represent something fast and strong

  • A harlot does not always represent Israel, but it does always represent something which has corrupted itself for gain, or corrupted others, or which is apostate


#13 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:19 AM

The following quotes will help to explain further the principle of polyvalent representation (all emphasis added).

The first is from 'A Brief View of the Figures, and Explication of the Metaphors, Contained in Scripture', written by John Brown of Haddington in 1784.

This work is a comprehensive examination of the principles of symbolism in Scripture, and is extremely useful, particularly when one is studying prophetic symbolism.

The following quotes demonstrate Brown's understanding of polyvalent representation, and provide a further explanation of this principle:

'To understand metaphors, it must be observed,

1.  That the foundation thereof is likeness between the things from which the metaphor is drawn, and that to which it is applied.'


This is Brown's first point concerning polyvalent representation (to which he refers simply as 'metaphors').

This is rightly called by Brown the foundation of the use of metaphor. It explains to us why one thing is put for another - because they have something in common.

It will be noted that this is precisely what has been stated previously in these posts:

One entity is used to represent another on the basis that some quality or attribute of the first is in some way appropriate to, or shared by, the second


Brown continues:

'2.  Because every thing has various qualities and operations, one thing may be the metaphorical emblem of persons or things different, or contrary: so a lion is the emblem of God, of Christ, of Satan, and of men, good and bad.'


This is Brown's second point concerning polyvalent representation.

One thing may be the representation of any other thing which shares one or more of its qualities. The ferocity and strength of a lion, to take Brown's example, may therefore be used to represent God, Christ, satan, or men. It need not represent only one entity.

#14 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:20 AM

It will be noted that this point also has been mentioned previously in this chapter:

One symbol (brass, for example), may be used to represent any entity which shares some of the characteristics of brass, and this means that brass will not always be representing the same entity


Brown then goes on to warn against attempting to take a metaphorical representation too far, pointing out that when this form of representation is used, only one or two of the qualities of the symbol will be appropriate to the entity which it represents.

We cannot expect that which is the symbol to have all of the qualities of that which it represents:

3.  The difference between the emblem and the object of the metaphor ; that is, between that from which the metaphor is drawn, and that which it exhibits, renders it impossible for any metaphor fully to represent its object, and absurd to expect, that an universal similitude betwixt the emblem and the object should ever be found. 

4.  Hence it follows, that to squeeze metaphors, by running the parallel further than truth and decency, With respect to the emblem and object will admit, is not to illustrate, but to discredit and darken the mysteries of God.'


There is a very intelligent warning here from Brown - we cannot take a metaphor too far.

We should never attempt to make the metaphor a complete representation of that which it is intended to represent. Metaphors are, by their very nature, approximate representations, just as types in Scripture are called only the shadow of the reality.

#15 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:21 AM

Finally Brown says:

'5. Nay, in the sacred metaphors, one particular is generally the principal thing thereby exhibited.

This, by the attentive reader or preacher, should, from the circumstances of the text or context, be especially enquired after and considered.'


Here Brown identifies the fact that when one entity is used to represent another, we need only look for the principal feature or one characteristic in particular to be reflected by that which it represents, in order to understand what the symbol means. We do not need to try and match every characteristic of the metaphor with every characteristic of that which it represents.

Furthermore, Brown reminds us that at all times the context of the passage in question ought to be our guide in determining the sense of a metaphor.

#16 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:22 AM

Faber, another Historicist commentator, makes the same points:

'In the rich imagery of Daniel and St. John, different symbols are frequently used to express the same thing: but no one symbol is ever used to express different things ; unless such different tilings have a manifest analogical resemblance to each other.'


This is Faber's definition of both archetypal representation ('different symbols are frequently used to express the same thing'), and polyvalent representation ('no one symbol is ever used to express different things ; unless such different tilings have a manifest analogical resemblance to each other').

It is noteworthy that this distinction, and these two fundamental principles of Scriptural symbolism, were understood by the Historicist commentators.

This is one of the reasons why so many different commentators came to the same conclusion, because they read Scripture in the same way.

They understood that the principles of prophetic symbolism are the same as the principles of all Scriptural symbolism - that the same principles are used everywhere, throughout the entire Bible.

It was this understanding which resulted in them coming to an accurate understanding of prophecy.

#17 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:23 AM

This has been recognised by a number of brethren in their analysis of prophecy, Brother Graham Pearce, Brother A D Norris, Brother Peter Watkins and Brother Walker all make note of this important principle.

Brother Graham Pearce writes:

'All that can properly be deduced from similarity of language is that the quality of things in the one case will be similar in the other; it does not require a similarity of geography or people.

Similarity of quality is the key to the Revelation's use of Old Testament phrases. 'Balaam' in the ecclesia at Pergamos means the qualities Balaam showed were there and not that we look for a repeat of Moab against Israel.

Similarly, 'that woman Jezebel' in Thyatira means people behaving like Jezebel, not that we have a repeat of an Israelitish king marrying the daughter of the king of  the Zidonians.'


This is an extremely important point. When we see the same language used in two different places, we may be inclined to think that the same entity is being referred to in both places.

But this may not be the case. It may be possible that the entities are different, but that they are merely be represented by the same metaphor, in the true style of polyvalent representation.

Brother Graham illustrates his point with an example from Revelation:

'In the 6th Seal the sun is black as sackcloth, the moon is as blood, stars fall from heaven, etc. Such language is used of Israel in Old Testament times; and is used by Jesus for Israel in AD 70 (Matthew 24:29). But the same language is used for the fall of Chaldean Babylon (Isaiah 13:10); and for judgement on Egypt (Ezekiel 32:7). 

The quality of things was the same in all cases -- the figures of speech have the same meaning. The use of similar language in the Revelation means that the same kind of thing is happening, but it does not establish which -- or indeed if any -- of the previous occasions is being repeated.

One has to examine the immediate context, and other significant matters to decide the nation or people involved.'


The importance of this statement must be understood - just because the same language is used in two different places in Scripture, does not mean that the same event or entity is being referred to.

In order to demonstrate the importance of this principle, a number of examples of its application follow.

#18 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:26 AM

Frequently we refer to the fig tree as a symbol of Israel. Frequently, however, it is not.

Let's have a look at the use of the fig tree as a symbol in Scripture:

Judges 9:
8The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us.
9But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? 
10And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us.
11But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?
12Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us.


This is the parable of Jotham, the son of Gideon. The trees here are used to represent people, and certain trees are mentioned specifically as being suitable for leadership due to some quality which they have.

It is clear, however, that the fig tree is not being used to represent Israel. We can also see that the principal characteristic of the fig tree is its rich sweet fruit, as we have seen previously.

1 Kings 4:
25And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.


This is speaking of the peacful reign of Solomon. Here the fig tree is associated with peace, just as it is often associated with prosperity.

Certainly it is the nation of Israel which is experiencing the peace of Solomon's reign in this passage, but just as certainly the fig tree is not being used to represent Israel - it is being used in conjunction with the vine as an extended metaphor for peace and prosperity.

Here are some other passages which incorporate the fig tree in their symbolism:

Isaiah 36:
16Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his vine, and very one of his fig tree and drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern;

Jeremiah 5:
17And they shall eat up thine harvest, and thy bread, which thy sons and thy daughters should eat: they shall eat up thy flocks and thine herds: they shall eat up thy vines and thy fig trees they shall impoverish thy fenced cities, wherein thou trustedst, with the sword.

Jeremiah 8:
13I will surely consume them, saith the LORD: there shall be no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall fade; and the things that I have given them shall pass away from them.

Hosea 2:
12And I will destroy her vines and her fig trees, whereof she hath said, These are my rewards that my lovers have given me: and I will make them a forest, and the beasts of the field shall eat them.

Hosea 9:
10I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers as the firstripe in the fig tree at her first time: but they went to Baalpeor, and separated themselves unto that shame; and their abominations were according as they loved.

Joel 1:
6For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek teeth of a great lion.
7He hath laid my vine waste, and barked My fig tree: he hath made it clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white.

12The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languisheth; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, even all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.

Joel 2:
22Be not afraid, ye beasts of the field: for the pastures of the wilderness do spring, for the tree beareth her fruit, the fig tree and the vine do yield their strength.


Why is the fig tree being used in them? What is its function in the text in these passages?

The symbolism in each one is the same - but are they all speaking of the same event?

#19 Fortigurn

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Posted 29 November 2003 - 03:27 AM

Let's take another symbol as an example:

Isaiah 34:
10It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.


This speaks of the judgment on Edom. The judgment here spoken of is an everlasting destruction. Edom is described as burning with unquenchable fires, the smoke of which will go up forever. This is a symbol of complete, utter, and everlasting destruction.

When we find this kind of judgment prophesied, we know that whatever is receiving this judgment will be destroyed forever. This is extremely important.

Now let's have a look at where this same symbol is used elsewhere:

Revelation 14:
11And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

Revelation 19:
3And again they said, Alleluia. And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.


The same symbol of everlasting destruction is used of the punishment of the servants of the beast, and also of the harlot city in Revelation. Both the servants of the beast then, and the harlot city in Revelation, are destined for everlasting destruction. Whatever they may represent, we know that this is their eventual fate.

What significance does this have for our interpretation of Scriptural symbolism? A great deal. Some people believe that the harlot city of Revelation is Jerusalem, and that the servants of the beast are the Jews. But this would mean that Revelation is prophesying everlasting destruction on both Jerusalem and the Jews.

We know that this cannot possibly be the case, because it is incompatible with passages elsewhere in Scripture which insist that the Jews will be returned to God after they acknowledge Christ as the Messiah, and that Jerusalem will be glorifed, becoming the capital of the whole earth.

We must be very careful with our interpretation of Scriptural symbolism. If a symbol refers to eternal destruction, then anything to which this symbol is applied will be destroyed forever.

Whatever else we may say about how God has punished the Jews and Jerusalem, we cannot say that He uses a symbol for eternal destruction and applies it to them.

This is simply incompatible with His stated will and purpose. We must interpret symbols in harmony with their meanings, in harmony with each other, and in harmony with Scripture.




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