I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind.
Revelation 6:12, 13 (NASB)
Taken literally, the images said to occur under the breaking of the sixth seal above would constitute a catastrophic event that no one in the world could overlook. If one were to take it metaphorically on the other hand, it could simply refer to a local event of importance to the direct audience reading Revelation. The Biblical literalists will obviously dismiss this approach but there is good reason to presume that the author here was speaking metaphorically and intended that the audience understand him metaphorically.
Viewing stories in the Bible metaphorically, especially when it comes to prophecy, is nothing new. In 1878 Scottish theologian James Stuart Russell wrote,
Prophecy is of the nature of poetry, and depicts events, not in the prosaic style of the historian, but in the glowing imagery of the poet. Add to this that the Bible does not speak with the cold logical correctness of the Western peoples, but with the tropical fervour of the, gorgeous East.
Thirteen years later English theologian Ernest Hampden-Cook in arguing for an early date (i.e. before 70 AD) for the composition of Revelation stated,
[I]t is commonly believed that the Revelation describes events which, eighteen hundred years ago, were to come to pass in what was then the remote future. If this were really so, there is no apparent reason why the contents of the book should not have been expressed in the plain language of everyday life. But the Roman empire was at least as absolute a despotism as any that now exists; and Nero was a fearful monster, whose misdeeds cast into the shade the. crimes of modern tyrants. Therefore as a matter of fact, an excellent reason exists for the Revelation having been communicated in the form of visions, and for the book itself having been written in symbolic language. This language was, at the time absolutely unintelligible to the enemies of the Christian faith.
Earlier than both of these men, English physicist Sir Isaac Newton wrote of prophetic language,
In the heavens, the Sun and Moon are, by interpreters of dreams, put for the persons of Kings and Queens; but in sacred Prophecy, which regards not single persons, the Sun is put for the whole species and race of Kings, in the kingdom or kingdoms of the world politic, shining with regal power and glory; the Moon for the body of the common people, considered as the King’s wife; the Stars for subordinate Princes and great men, or for Bishops and Rulers of the people of God, when the Sun is Christ; light for the glory, truth, and knowledge, wherewith great and good men shine and illuminate others; darkness for obscurity of condition, and for error, blindness and ignorance; darkning, smiting, or setting of the Sun, Moon, and Stars, for the ceasing of a kingdom, or for the desolation thereof, proportional to the darkness; darkning the Sun, turning the Moon into blood, and falling of the Stars, for the same; new Moons, for the return of a dispersed people into a body politic or ecclesiastic.
It’s very possible that the author of Revelation wanted to mask the fall of the powers of Rome in cryptic language to conceal the meaning. But is there any evidence in the Bible of using this type of symbolism? Two distinct stories come to mind that demonstrate this technique. First, there is the story of Joseph’s dream where he sees “the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me (Gen 37:9 NASB).” Joseph related the celestial objects in his dream to his father Jacob and his eleven brothers who are less than thrilled to be pictured bowing before Joseph. This dream is very relevant to the Jewish people because Jacob represents the nation of Israel and his twelve sons represent the twelve tribes. Using this theme when interpreting visions like those in Revelation could restrict the meaning to authorities within the Jewish community.
The second distinct parallel to this language is found in the book of Daniel. In his vision, Daniel sees a goat charge a ram and destroy its two horns and tramples over it. The goat has one great horn which is broken and replaced by four more. Out of one of these horns comes a little horn which is said to grow great toward the south, the east and toward the “glorious land” (i.e. Israel). Among Bible literalists this little horn is typically seen as the antichrist who is some mixture of man and Satan. Among critical Bible scholars however, the horn is almost universally identified as Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid Greek ruler who persecuted the Jews in the second century BC.
The little horn is said to remove the ritual of burnt offerings, overthrow the sanctuary and desolate it for three and a half years and magnify itself with the Prince of the host (probably a reference to the High Priest). All of these events were performed by Antiochus IV. The author of Daniel also writes of the little horn,
It grew up to the host of heaven and caused some of the host and some of the stars to fall to the earth, and it trampled them down (Dan 8:10 NASB).
Interpreting this as literal would cause some severe issues since stars are many times the size of Earth. I’ve heard literalists side step this by arguing that this is something like a meteor shower. While the text could allow this interpretation, the author himself explains the meaning of this dream. In the explanation the angel Gabriel appears to Daniel to tell him what the vision of the ram and goat means. Gabriel explains that the vision refers to the time of the end and that the ram’s horns represent Media and Persia and the goat represents Greece. The great horn is a king who is broken and four kingdoms come up in his place. Out of those kingdoms comes a king of bold countenance who understands riddles and causes fearful destruction. This obviously parallels the descriptions of the little horn in the vision. This figure will magnify himself, rise up against the Prince of princes and destroy mighty men and the people of the saints. This latter reference parallels the trampling of the stars in the vision itself and could only mean that the mighty men and people of the saints are synonymous with the stars of the vision.
The first part of this text is the vision written in the poetic form described by James Stuart Russell and Isaac Newton, while the explanation is written in a more historical manner. We are not so lucky in the book of Revelation to have the author lay out the interpretation and this is probably because being too open could be dangerous as Hampden-Cook surmises. It’s clear from an analysis of these texts however that a literal interpretation is not justified and that the authors did not intend such interpretations.
1. James Stuart Russell The Parousia Part I section II(d) (1878)
2. Ernest Hampton-Cook The Christ Has Come Part IX Secion I (1891)
3. Isaac Newton Obsevations on the Prophecies Chapter II (1733)