Literary Structure—a Key to Interpreting the Revelation

How does the literary structure of Revelation contribute to understanding the book's content.

Kenneth A. Strand is professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


THE RECENT trend toward better application of apocalyptic literature, including the book of Revelation, is both interesting and welcome. But as for the matter of interpreting the messages in the Revelation, the results seem as diverse as ever, if one is to judge by the various discussions and commentaries that keep appearing.

In this we will deal broadly with one vital hermeneutical concern, which too frequently has been overlooked or ignored in interpreting the Revelation; namely, the matter of the book's literary structure. Even though this is our approach here, it must be emphasized that it should be considered as a tool in addition to, not to the exclusion of, such other vital concerns as the time, place, and purpose of writing; the relevant historical and literary backgrounds for the composition and its messages; the symbolism and imagery used; and many other matters that could be mentioned.

Chiastic Structure in the Revelation

A careful analysis of the book of Rev elation makes it apparent that there are correlatives or counterparts between the earlier portion of the book and the latter part, not only as to specific symbols used (which sometimes appear somewhat at random as well) but also with respect to general content and themes presented in entire sections of the material. These correlative or counterpart sections appear in an inverse order, thus forming what is known as a chiastic structure comparable to the in verse parallelism so well known as one of the forms in which the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament occurs.

This structure is clearly evident in the diagram below, which presents, of course, only a tentative outline for the book:


1. Prolog (1:1-11)

   2. The Church—Militant (1:12- 3*22)

      3. God's Work for Mankind's Salvation—in Progress (4:1-8:1)

         4. The Forces Opposing God's People:

            a. Warned—the Trumpets (8:2-11:18)

            b. The Battle Scene in Progress, With the Evil Powers Launching Offensives (11:19-14:20)

      5. The Forces Opposing God's People:

         a. Punished—Bowl of Plagues (15:1-16:21)

         b. The Battle Scene Ended, With the Evil Powers Judged (17:1-18:24)

  6. God's Work for Mankind's Salvation—Completed (19: 1-21:4)

 7. The Church—Triumphant (21:5-22:5)

8. Epilog (22:6-21)


Prolog and Epilog (1:1-11 and 22: 6-21). As one reads the introductory and concluding sections of the book of Rev elation, certain parallels become immediately apparent. For example, in both sections, the purpose of the book is indicated (to reveal things shortly to be done; see 1:1 and 22:6); the line of trans mission is stated (see the same verses); the twofold theme is brought to view (Christ's parousia, and Christ as "Alpha and Omega"; see 1:7, 8 and 22:12, 13); a blessing is pronounced on those who heed the messages (1:3 and 22:7); and reference is made to the churches (1:11 and 22:16).

But this sort of interesting parallel ism is by no means restricted to the prolog and epilog. As we move into the specific messages of the main part of the book we find that there is a basic dividing line at the end of chapter 14, which sets off the messages into two main divisions that have paralleling sections in inverse order. To these sections we now turn.

The Church—Militant and Triumphant (1:12-3:22 and 21:5-22:5). The section of Revelation from 1:12 to 3:22 may be titled the "Church Militant," whereas the section from 21:5 to 22:5 describes the "Church Triumphant." In the former of these sections promises are made to the overcomer; and in the latter, fulfillments of the promises are highlighted. There are, for instance, references to the tree of life (2:7 and 22:2), the book of life (3:5 and 21:27), the New Jerusalem (3:12 and 21:10), God's name written on His people (3:12 and 22:4), and the throne (3:21 and 22:3). Among additional parallels that round out the picture are the following: reference to the brightness of Christ (1:16 and 21:23), mention of Christ as "the first and the last" or the "Alpha and Omega" (1:17, 2:8; and 21:6), and specific mention of overcomers (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; and 21:7). It is significant that in each of these sections God's people are pictured—in the first, with their faults and tribulations and with exhortations to overcome; and in the second, as overcomers who have received the rewards promised in that earlier section.

God's Work for Mankind's Salvationin Progress and Completed (4:1-8:1 and 19:1-21:4). As we move to the next sections forward from the front of the book and backward from the end, we find once again paralleling themes and settings: In both can be found the basic setting of a throne, four living creatures, and twenty-four elders, having songs of praise (see 4:2-11; 5:8-14; and 19:4-7). In the earlier section there is a sequence that is highlighted by such elements as the four horsemen and the souls under the altar crying, "How long, O Lord . . . dost thou not judge and avenge our blood . . . ?" (6:1-8:1; note especially 6:10). This is balanced in the later section by a view of Christ as the victorious rider on a white horse, and by an acclamation to God for having "judged the great whore" (Babylon) and having "avenged the blood of his servants at her hand" (19:1-21; see especially 19:1, 2, 11-16). Other parallel features between these two sections include white clothing given to God's people (7:9-14 and 19:8) and the distress or destruction of the various categories of men on earth (6:15-17 and 19:17, 18).

The Forces Opposing God's People (8:2-14:20 and 15:1-18:24). Moving again ahead from the beginning of the book and backward from the end, there is in both divisions of the Revelation another paralleling presentation—this time in a twofold sequence: In the first section, the seven warning trumpets are followed by the drama involving the dragon and the two beasts (8:2-14:20); and in the second, the seven bowls of wrath are followed by judgment on the evil forces (15:1-18:24). The similarity between the trumpets and the bowls is easily recognized, as in each trumpet or bowl the target or central item is the same—the earth (8:7 and 16:2), the sea (8:8 and 16:3), rivers and fountains (8:10 and 16:4), and the heavenly bodies or the sun (8:12 and 16:8), darkness (9:2 and 16:10), the river Euphrates (9:14 and 16:12), and the announcement of Christ's rule or the statement "It is done" (11:15 and 16:17). Also as one notes the dragon and leopardlike beast of Revelation 12 and 13 in comparison with the scarlet-colored beast of chapter 17, the striking similarity of these animals in having seven heads and ten horns is immediately apparent. In addition, a woman is prominent in both scenes— the woman clothed with the sun in chapter 12:1, and in contrast the harlot in chapter 17. Moreover, both sections make reference to the fall of Babylon (14:8 and 18:2).

History and Eschatology. It should be noted that the earlier sections in the Revelation depict the historical scene (a time when the powers of evil oppose and persecute God's people), whereas the second major part depicts the era of eschatological judgment (a time when the powers of evil are punished and when God's people are finally and fully vindicated). It would seem that the two main divisions of the book have purposely been patterned after the twofold theme of (1) Christ as "Alpha and Omega," which gives assurance of His presence with His people in this historical age; and (2) the promise of Christ's return, when He will reward every man according to his works (see 1:7, 8 and 22:12, 13). It corresponds also with the statement in 1:19 that John is to write the things he has seen, "the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter"; that is, things pertaining to this present historical era, and things relating to the eschatological consummation.

But in addition to this broad pattern, which divides the book of Revelation into two major parts, it may be noted that in each of the two main divisions there are patterns of recapitulation. In the first main division, beginning with the throne-room section and closing with the drama involving the dragon and the two beasts, there is a sequence that may be illustrated as follows (adapted from my presentation in Interpreting the Book of Revelation, p. 48):

God Works for Man's Salvation, 4:1-8:1

1. Victorious Vision: Throne Room of Heaven; Lamb Worthy to Open the Book, 4:1-5:14

2. First Six Seals, 6:1-17

3. Spotlight on Last Events: Sealing Work; Great Multitude, 7: 1-17

4. Glorious Climax: Seventh Seal, 8:1

Warnings to the Wayward, 8:2- 11:18

1. Victorious Vision: Incense Mingled With Prayer of Saints, 8:2-5

2. First Six Trumpets, 8:7-9:21

3. Spotlight on Last Events: Angel and Scroll; Temple and Two Witnesses, 10:1-11:14

4. Glorious Climax: Seventh Trumpet, 11:15-18

Struggle, 11:19-14:20

1. Victorious Vision: Open Temple, and Ark, 11:19

2. Evil Forces Attack God's People, 12:1-13:18

3. Spotlight on Last Events: Redeemed 144,000; 3 Angels' Messages, 14:1-12 .

4. Glorious Climax: Harvest of Earth, 14:14-20

Similarly, as one looks at the last main division from chapter 15 onward, it becomes clear that here too there is a pattern of recapitulation. For example, in chapter 17, the description of judgment on Babylon and the reference to the waters on which the woman Babylon sits (see particularly verses 1 and 15) are clearly intended to explain the sixth- and seventh-bowl plagues, which had referred to the Euphrates (the river or "waters" of Babylon), and to the judgment on Babylon (see especially 16:12, 19). On the other hand, we find that a portion of chapter 17 also receives its own further recapitulation and explanation in chapter 20. In 17:8 the seven-headed beast in the bottomless pit is described as arising from the pit and going into perdition (final destruction); and in 17:11 this beast is referred to as having existence as an eighth head, which "is of" (or "embraces") the seven, prior to its going into perdition. Chapter 20 reiterates and expands this picture, as the old dragon, Satan, is in the bottomless pit during the millennium, and as he comes forth from the pit at the end of the "thousand years" and deceives the nations (it is implied in verse 5 that the wicked dead are raised at the end of the millennium). This situation, with Satan personally in charge of all the evil forces from all historical time, gives the beast existence once again now under the "eighth" head, namely Satan, who has been the instigator, perpetrator, and inspirer of the beast power in all its earlier forms. "Perdition" comes as the dragon is thrown "into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are" (20:10).

Interpretational Principles

With the literary structure of the book in broad overview before us, what implications may be drawn from the stand point of interpretational principles?

First of all, it is important that the messages and individual symbolisms in the book of Revelation be treated not only within the framework of their immediate context but also with due regard to the particular main division of the book wherein they are found—whether the historical or eschatological (or prolog or epilog, if such be the case). Thus, for example, an amillennial interpretation which looks upon the "thousand years" in Revelation 20 as being a symbol of the Christian Era is immediately seen to be invalid; for were that the meaning, the "thousand years" would have been presented in the historical division of the book prior to chapter 15, not in the eschatological division.

One word of caution is perhaps in order here, however: the fact that the perspectives in the two main divisions of the Revelation are historical and eschatological does not preclude the occurrence of some historical series culminating in an eschatological climax, as indicated in our outline above. Moreover, in the eschatological divisions, two kinds of historical items occasionally appear: (1) explanations, such as of the beast in the wilderness and its heads and horns in 17:9-12; and (2) exhortations, such as in 16:15 and 18:4.

Second, it must be recognized that proper interpretation cannot be straightline in any sense that would destroy the main division between the historical and eschatological parts. Thus, historicists who would find just one straight-line sequence running from the early church to the final consummation, preterists who would do likewise for the ancient period, or futurists who would see such a straight-line development of events cramped into a short period of time at the end of earth's history—all of these would do injustice to the basic twofold division of the book of Revelation.

Third, a procedure that would see recapitulationary sequences in each main division would appear to be in harmony with the general structure intended. Thus for the first main division, there are repeated historical sequences going from the time of the prophet to the con summation and covering different aspects of the historical situation. This type of interpretation, incidentally, finds a parallel in other apocalyptic literature, such as the closely related Old Testament book of Daniel with its parallelism in chapters 2, 7, 8, 9, and 10-12. And it should be recognized, too, that there is recapitulation in the scenes of the second major division of the Revelation—recapitulation within an eschatological rather than historical framework.

In closing, it may be stated that hermeneutical guidelines such as those indicated above are indeed important, but it should also be reiterated that they are to be taken in conjunction with, not to the exclusion of, other vital principles for interpretation.

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Kenneth A. Strand is professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

March 1977

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