The meaning of my title will not be apparent till the end, but he who endures will find intellectual relief, if not satisfaction.
One of my favorite quotes from John Walvoord comes from his commentary on the book of Revelation.[i] With regard to the “stars of heaven” falling to earth (Revelation 6:13), he wrote:
Students of Revelation have had difficulty interpreting this passage, and the tendency has been to regard these judgments as symbolic rather than real. This is because of a reluctance to accept a literal interpretation of these judgments falling on the earth at this time . . .
He adds an important quotation from E. W. Bullinger — with which he obviously agrees — that expresses exactly what Walvoord understands here:
It is impossible for us to take this as symbolical; or as other than what it literally says. The difficulties of the symbolical interpretation are insuperable, while no difficulties whatever attend the literal interpretation.
Though I mentioned it in passing above, we still need to ask exactly what language it is that Walvoord refers to. What is it that Bullinger regards as so easy to swallow that a literal interpretation of the expression has no difficulties whatever attending to it?
This: “And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind” (Revelation 6:13).
There are other signs in the context as well, but the stars falling to earth is the key issue here. Note: John speaks of “stars” plural. He says “they fell to the earth” — the Greek preposition translated “to” is often translated “into.” If the language is literal, it at least suggests impact, if not penetration. Contrary to Bullinger and Walvoord, I believe we do have something of a difficulty taking this as literal in their way of speaking. Let me suggest just two problems.
First, as Walvoord says in his commentary, in Revelation 6:13, John is not actually prophesying the end of the world. There is still some time to go before that happens. The stars falling to earth is not the final end. Why is that a problem? Because of the second issue.
Second, since most stars are actually larger than our sun, which itself is very, very much larger than our tiny globe, even one star falling to the earth or into the earth would result in the utter destruction of our pretty planet. Nothing could remain after such a conflagration.
But John speaks of multiple stars, not just one. If the language were in any way literal, the earth would be incinerated to less than nothing in no time. Without question, the literal fall of a single literal star onto the little earth would very literally end the earth’s history in a horrific holocaust.
However, the problem with Walvoord’s interpretation is not that it is “literal.” The problem is that his approach is modern American newspaper exgesis. Walvood’s “literal” is a specific post-enlightenment sort of “literal.” It is not the “literal” of Biblical authors. In other words, Walvoord does not read the Bible in a Biblical manner; he is not reading the Bible through the Bible.
What do I mean?
To begin with, there are many passages in the Old Testament that speak of celestial phenomena as an aspect of judgment. All of them are “literal” in the sense that they speak of covenantal judgement in special language designed to say more than a modern scientific depiction of events would.
So, try this as a hypothesis: it is not the interpretation that is figurative; it is the language of the author.
For example, Joel obviously did not mean that the moon would turn to literal blood (Joel 2:31). I suspect that Walvood and other literalists might see the problems of interpreting this passage “literally.” Just delineating the chemical composition of human blood — assuming, of course, that even though we are talking about the moon, the blood in question is not that of a werewolf — is something of a challenge. For the moon to assume such a chemical form and still remain a light-reflecting body of any color would be more than a little literal challenge.
The point, of course, is that when the Bible speaks of stars falling to the earth or the moon turning to blood, the language being used is figurative language, just as when the Bible speaks of God’s people as sheep and Yahweh as the shepherd.
Note: we are not talking about “figurative interpretation.” We are talking about interpreting figurative language — that is language intended from the beginning as a figure. The “figuration” is not part of the interpretive process; it is part of the compositional process.
Joel and the apostle John composed figures, just as David did when he spoke of Yahweh as a shepherd and His people as sheep. Joel says the moon turned to blood. John says the stars fell to earth (actually “the land”).
Just as Yahweh is not a literal shepherd and His sometimes sheepish people have never been literal sheep, the moon, never has in the past turned, and never will in the future turn either into blood or into green cheese. So, also, no literal physical star ever has fallen to the earth or been trampled on (Daniel 8:10), nor shall one ever pound upon our pretty blue planet.
So, why should the Bible speak like this? What is the point?
Let’s begin with something easier.
We can imagine why David the shepherd, who spent years tending sheep and defending them from lions and bears would naturally speak of Yahweh as a shepherd defending His people — both collectively and individually — from those who sought to destroy them. Indeed, the imagery of “shepherd” goes far back into Israel’s history, as far back as Abraham (Genesis 48:15, pointing back to Abraham).
What about the moon and the stars?
It goes back long before Abraham. It goes back to the creation, specifically to the fourth day — though with a background in the very beginning.
And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:14-18)
From the fourth day of the creation, the lights in the heavens were given a mundane function — to separate the day from the night — and a rather more interesting function — “for signs.”
Just as God created man and sheep with the intention of the relationship being fitted to manifest His own relationship with His people — only partially, to be sure, but poetically and beautifully — so also, He created the sun, moon, and stars full of symbolic potential — profound, poetic, overpowering potential.
Separating day from night and giving light on the earth might not be exciting for the sun, moon, and stars. It may seem to reduce them to celestial lightbulbs — almost as if Edison could have created them.
But setting them in the expanse of heaven to rule over day and night to determine the seasons of the beautiful blue planet, that is wondrous. The sun, moon, and stars — like the shepherds who appear much later in the Biblical story — were created from the beginning to be symbols of Yahweh Himself and His rule over the world.
For the LORD God is a sun and shield (Psalm 84:11)
But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. (Malachi 4:2) [Where the sun hides its wings in the daytime is a matter for a future essay.]
Just as shepherds become not only symbols of Yahweh, but of those who rule under Him, so also, sun, moon, and stars become symbols of those who have been granted rule. Just as language about shepherds often has a symbolical dimension — something not inserted when we interpret, but something intended by the original authors — so also language about sun, moon, and stars was often — perhaps I should say usually — intended by the prophetic authors of Scripture to depict something other than the literal lights in our cosmic sky.
Just as, in His providence, Yahweh guided men into a sheep-shepherd relationship that would encompass profound symbolic dimensions, so also in His creative purpose, Yahweh created the sun, moon, and stars as signs or symbols of His rule and authority, and also of the rule and authority that He would grant to His Adamic agents in history.
Walvood’s reading of Revelation 6:13 is as impoverished as a reading of Psalm 23 that would seek to discover exactly where in Palestine Yahweh led David to which brook to drink of what water, or exactly which valley and what shadow Yahweh guided David through.
Language that was originally intended as symbolic must be read in the rich Biblical framework of poetic and symbolic language in order for us to grasp the literal meaning for the original authors, for their intended readers and for us in the 21st century.
The best introduction to that grand symbolic story, an
introduction that begins at the beginning and gives the reader the big picture
of Biblical symbolism is James Jordan’s incomparable classic, Through New
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
[i] The Revelation of Jesus Christ (),
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