By: Kevin Merrell
Once we take the Book of Revelation seriously, what are we to make of the casserole of curious metaphors that populate it?
Container or contents?
In the movie, The Princess Bride, Wallace Shawn plays Vizzini, a self–important little boss in a trio of bumbling outlaws. Mandy Pitinkin plays another of the outlaws, Inigo Montoya, a Spanish fencing master intent on revenging his father’s death. Despite his belief that he’s an unusually clever person, Vizzini is fond of saying that unlikely events are “inconceivable!” Once after he says this, Inigo thoughtfully replies, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The same could be said for a word that showed up as far back as the Book of Revelation or The Apocalypse of John in the Bible. The word, apocalypse, is a part of our modern written and visual vocabulary to describe the world as we know it collapsing into chaos, suffering and destruction, right? Yes and no.
While the dictionary indeed defines apocalypse as “a great disaster: a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction”, the word has its origins in the Greek word, apokalypsis, simply meaning “to reveal or uncover”. It’s as if the word, apocalypse, was a jug full of chocolate milk. At one time the word, jug, meant a container for liquid and the words, chocolate milk, meant chocolate–flavored milk. Over the course of thousands of years, however, the word, jug in this case, has taken on the meaning of its contents, the chocolate milk. There is great value in separating the container of the revelations of John from its contents of prophecies about the judgments of God in the last days.
This is revelation
The first verses of the Book of Revelation open with a bold statement announcing this separation of container from content and inviting our attention and further study:
1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand. (Revelation 1:1–3)
In verse one, we learn that John’s revelation is actually Jesus’ revelation and as with all matters divine, it originates with God. Will we heed the mind and will of the Lord? By way of assignment, a messenger or angel has guided John through the revelation. In verse two we learn that the Book of Revelation is John’s testimony or witness of Jesus Christ and the events of the last days that were shown to him. In verse three we discover that a blessing is attached to reading, hearing and abiding by the words of the revelation. The phrase, “for the time is at hand,” adds a note of urgency mirroring Jesus’ own urgency when he taught his apostles about the last days.
The gift of a divine message
In the Book of Mormon we learn that others, including Nephi the son of Lehi, have experienced this same comprehensive, panoramic vision of the human story seen by John:
25 But the things which thou shalt see hereafter thou shalt not write; for the Lord God hath ordained the apostle of the Lamb of God that he should write them.
26 And also others who have been, to them hath he shown all things, and they have written them; and they are sealed up to come forth in their purity, according to the truth which is in the Lamb, in the own due time of the Lord, unto the house of Israel.
27 And I, Nephi, heard and bear record, that the name of the apostle of the Lamb was John, according to the word of the angel. (1 Nephi 14:25–27)
Nephi is forbidden by an angel to write an account of the vision of all things because it is the task of another. John, the apostle of the Lamb of God, has been ordained to share this testimony and revelation with us. Other prophets have been shown the same vision but their records are sealed up to come forth in a future day of the Lord’s choosing. The Book of Revelation is the gift of a divine message to us, a testimony of Jesus Christ and a witness by divine decree to the events unfolding in the last days. What faithful person would not be drawn in study and prayer to John’s revelation? Will God not hold us accountable for what we do with such a gift?
“Plain and pure”
Even a casual reading of John’s Apocalypse, however, raises an additional but perplexing question: if the Book of Revelation is a specially-prepared testimony of Jesus and of end time events, why, oh why, does it feel so obscure and mysterious to us? With its jambalaya of curious beasts, books, seals, trumpets, colors and sounds, the book reads in places like some kind of fever dream or hallucination.
Remarkably, in the opinion of the angel teaching Nephi about the vision, John’s record is plain, pure and easy to understand:
Wherefore, the things which he [John] shall write are just and true; and behold they are written in the book which thou beheld proceeding out of the mouth of the Jew; and at the time they proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, or, at the time the book proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, the things which were written were plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men. (1 Ne. 14:23.)
“Well, of course, it’s clear to an angel,” we think to ourselves, “Without the veil to cloud his understanding it’s easy for him to understand John’s vision.” While that’s undoubtedly true there’s also a possible clue for us in the text. The angel notes that “at the time the book proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, the things which were written were plain and pure.” Like many parts of the Bible the story may well have gotten muddled in transcription and translation before it got to us.
Working on the puzzle
Even if we’re stuck with a clear story that took a beating when it went through repeated translations, yet there are pieces to the puzzle that we might piece together for ourselves. For instance, when we read about the opening of the sixth seal (the sixth thousand-year period of the earth’s mortal probation) in Revelation 6:12–16 we see a tremendous earthquake followed by lights out and everyone ducking for cover:
12 And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun be-came black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
13 And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;
16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
In verse 13 we’re not sure what to make of stars falling to the earth yet in verse 15 we read that everyone from the high and mighty to the lowest of the low, are trying to find a cave to take refuge in. Why? Something is falling out of the sky on them. Could the word stars in this case perhaps mean meteorites? Later in chapter eight we read of hail and fire falling from the sky and burning up a third of the earth’s vegetation. Could the word hail, in this case, mean meteorites again? Hundred–pound burning rocks falling out of the sky makes more sense than 100–pound hailstones falling out of the sky. Also, it’s a stretch to imagine fire and ice coming down at the same time much less burning up great swaths of vegetation around the world.
Continuing on in Revelation 8:8–9 we read of something described as a mountain falling from the sky into the sea causing the water to become as blood, rendering it toxic to all aquatic life. Where have we heard of water being turned to blood, rendering it poisonous before? The story of Moses and the plagues of Egypt. There are a number of similarities between the plagues of Egypt and the judgments of God found in the Book of Revelation. Because God always uses natural means to accomplish his purposes it’s not unreasonable to imagine him using the same natural forces in both scenarios. One of the striking similarities among all scriptural accounts of the last days is a connection to the heavens. Something dramatic always appears in the sky or falls out of the sky.
“One of the plainest books”
It’s one thing for an angel to declare the Book of Revelation to be clear and easily understood by all but what are we to make of Joseph Smith’s declaration to a conference of the Church on April 8, 1843 that, “The book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written”? (History of the Church, 5:342.) What? Did the prophet of this, the final dispensation of the fullness of times, receive the same vision of all things seen by John, Nephi, Moses, Enoch and the Brother of Jared? Joseph never claimed that he did but anything he received from the Lord could help us decipher the Book of Revelation. In fact, as Joseph Smith was translating the Bible he had a question-and-answer session with the Lord about the Book of Revelation that is preserved in the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 77. A pattern quickly emerges in D&C 77 that John is telling the story using symbols:
In fact, as Joseph Smith was translating the Bible he had a question-and-answer session with the Lord about the Book of Revelation that is preserved in the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 77. A pattern quickly emerges in D&C 77 that John is telling the story using symbols:
3 Q. Are the four beasts limited to individual beasts, or do they represent classes or orders?
A. They are limited to four individual beasts, which were shown to John, to represent the glory of the classes of beings in their destined order or sphere of creation, in the enjoyment of their eternal felicity.
4 Q. What are we to understand by the eyes and wings, which the beasts had?
A. Their eyes are a representation of light and knowledge, that is, they are full of knowledge; and their wings are a representation of power, to move, to act, etc. (D&C 77:3–4)
Find me a code book
Describing one thing as another thing is a rich, poetic form called metaphor that resembles using code words or a specialized vocabulary. For instance, instead of saying there was so much dust in the air that the moon looked red, we read in several places in scripture that there will come a time in the last days that “the moon will turn to blood.” In fact, there is an entire sub–genre in scripture called apocalyptic literature that includes, besides the Book of Revelation, sections of Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Mark 13, Matthew 24, 1 Nephi 13–14 and D&C 88. These passages written by different prophets at different times and in different places all refer to the last days using similar if not the exact same metaphors. Perhaps part of our challenge in grasping the Book of Revelation or apocalyptic literature, in general, is learning this prophetic language. We’d benefit from a code book or a Rosetta Stone to help us make sense of all those metaphors. If Joseph Smith proclaimed the Book of Revelation one of the plainest of all books, he probably understood this prophetic language of metaphors.
Remarkably, LDS researcher Anthony E. Larson claims to have discovered robust, workable insights mirrored by non–LDS scholars that unlock the metaphoric language of the prophets. He’ll be the first to state he’s not a prophet but he does make good use the same gifts of reason and prayerful study that we’ve all been given and invited to use. Through books, a blog, an excellent series of on–line courses and a Facebook page, Brother Larson connects us with both the seemingly supernatural, miraculous stories from ancient scripture as well as the events of the last days foretold in scripture. Check out Anthony Larson’s take on prophetic language and decide for yourself.
“One grand sign”
Joseph Smith taught that it is not God’s intention for us as the children of the light to be caught off guard by the events of the last days:
The coming of the Son of Man never will be—never can be till the judgments spoken of for this hour are poured out: which judgments are commenced. Paul says, ‘Ye are the children of the light, and not of the darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief in the night.’ It is not the design of the Almighty to come upon the earth and crush it and grind it to powder, but he will reveal it to His servants the prophets. (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 286).
More useful news: God reveals his design for the last days to his servants the prophets. Already Joseph Smith and Nephi have helped us better understand the Book of Revelation. By knowing about the events of the last days, we can recognize in faith the hand of God when his judgments come instead of concluding that he has forgotten us, or worse.
And there’s more. Continuing his insights about the end times Joseph shared with us the grand sign of the second coming of Christ:
Judah must return, Jerusalem must be rebuilt, and the temple and water come out from under the temple, and the waters of the Dead Sea be healed. It will take some time to rebuild the walls of the city and the temple, and etc.; and all this must be done before the Son of Man will make His appearance.
There will be wars and rumors of wars, signs in the heavens above and on the earth beneath, the sun turned into darkness and the moon to blood, earthquakes in divers places, the seas heaving beyond their bounds; then will appear one grand sign of the Son of Man in heaven. But what will the world do? They will say it is a planet, a comet, etc. But the Son of man will come as the sign of the coming of the Son of Man, which will be as the light of the morning cometh out of the east (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 286–87).
Thank you, Joseph, for the grand sign of the second coming!
“Unfolded in the eyes of all the people”
Finally, let’s give Moroni the last word and add him to the list of the Lord’s servants the prophets that can help us better understand the Book of Revelation. In the book of Ether the Lord speaks to Moroni of the revelations of John:
15 Behold, when ye shall rend that veil of unbelief which doth cause you to remain in your awful state of wickedness, and hardness of heart, and blindness of mind, then shall the great and marvelous things which have been hid up from the foundation of the world from you—yea, when ye shall call upon the Father in my name, with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then shall ye know that the Father hath remembered the covenant which he made unto your fathers, O house of Israel.
16 And then shall my revelations which I have caused to be written by my servant John be unfolded in the eyes of all the people. Remember, when ye see these things, ye shall know that the time is at hand that they shall be made manifest in very deed.
17 Therefore, when ye shall receive this record ye may know that the work of the Father has commenced upon all the face of the land. (Ether 4:15–17)
More clues! Our veil of unbelief, hardness of heart and blindness of mind are all part of the problem. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people it just means our traditions of understanding the Book of Revelation and the last days prevent us from actually understanding them. All of us can humbly call upon the Father in the name of Christ and seek to understand the Book of Revelation the best we can. As we do there’ll come a time when everyone understands the revelations of John, and when that happens, the events themselves will manifest shortly thereafter. Furthermore, as we’ve already received the record of Moroni we know that the work of the Father has commenced. It feels like we’re right in the thick of things now. We feel empowered to go out and study the Book of Revelation.