What is the meaning of those mysterious symbols in the book of Revelation? Are they relevant today? What do they tell us about the near future?
The book of Revelation has been the subject of many debates over the years. Various ideas have been proposed about how to view it—already past, an allegory on good versus evil, and future prophecy, just to name a few.
Revelation is dense with imagery and symbolism, which explains why there are so many competing interpretations. However, practicing two keys will ensure that we have the proper framework for decoding it:
- First, we have to believe the Bible.
- Second, we must let the Bible interpret itself.
The following are explanations (based on Scripture) of eight different symbols found in the book of Revelation.
“Keys of Hades and of Death”
Jesus Christ makes a profound comment in Revelation 1:18: “I have the keys of Hades and of Death.”
The true biblical teaching about death and Hades has been buried in the mire of paganism for centuries. As a result, the significance of “the keys of Hades and of Death” is lost on many.
What happens after you die? What is Hades? And what do death and Hades have to do with keys?
Death marks the end of life—we know that. But what many overlook is what happens after death, which only the Bible reveals.
Upon death, human beings are described as sleeping (Psalm 13:3; Daniel 12:2; Acts 13:36). The place where these unconscious dead are is called Hades, a Greek word that refers to “the grave,” “the pit” or “place of the dead.” Acts 2:27 uses Hades to describe the location of Christ’s body when He was dead for three days and three nights.
In short, Hades is where the dead are; the dead are not conscious in heaven or hell, living out the consequences of their choices. The dead are asleep in the grave (Hades), completely unaware of the passing of time (1 Thessalonians 4:13; Ecclesiastes 9:5).
That Christ holds these keys is a powerful reminder that He hasn’t forgotten about those who have died. Jesus was asserting His authority over Hades, declaring that He alone could break the seal of death and resurrect the countless lives claimed by it. This is what He will do at the appointed times of the resurrections (Revelation 20).
“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth” (John 5:28).
“The key of David”
This symbol comes from a passage describing Christ: “These things says He who is holy, He who is true, ‘He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens’” (Revelation 3:7).
This is a reference to a messianic prophecy from Isaiah 22:
As the world spirals into moral decline and as geopolitical tensions grow increasingly unstable, the relevance of the symbols in Revelation has become more apparent than ever.“Then it shall be in that day, that I will call My servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah . . . The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open” (verses 20, 22).
Historically, the one who held this key had the high position of steward over the royal household. According to Ellicott’s Commentary, the steward “alone was to decide who was to be admitted into the king’s chamber, and for whom the king’s treasury was to be opened.”
The prophecy was first fulfilled in Eliakim, King Hezekiah’s steward, but according to Revelation 3, Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.
But how does it apply to Jesus?
“David” means “beloved.” So the “key of the house of David” is also the key of the house of the Beloved. And the Beloved is none other than the prophesied descendant of David, the Son of God (Matthew 3:17).
In Hebrews 3:6, we learn that Jesus acts as a steward over His own household, the Church and the family of God. Through His death, He made a way into that house for us. In the same verse, the author reminds Christians: “We are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ” (New Living Translation).
Jesus holds the key of David because He is the gateway into the family of God (John 14:6). Because of Him, we can have fellowship with both God the Father and Jesus Christ as members of the real royal household (verse 23).
For more about the key of David, see our article about the message in Revelation 3 to “Philadelphia.”
The four horsemen of the Apocalypse
Six distinct visions unfold in Revelation 6, the first four of which are linked together by horsemen.
The white horse represents religious deception (Revelation 6:2; Matthew 24:5); the red, war and division (Revelation 6:4; Matthew 24:6); the black, famine and the disasters that cause it (Revelation 6:5-6; Matthew 24:7); and the pale horse, disease and other causes of untimely death (Revelation 6:8).
These horsemen symbolize conditions that have long plagued man, but that will greatly intensify in the end times. Due to their collective ride, the world will be subject to deception, division, destruction and death. The only solution is the return of Jesus Christ when He restores the earth to a Garden of Eden–like condition (Acts 3:21).
As sobering as the effects of the horsemen are, we are reminded twice in Revelation 6 that God has placed limits on them.
God controls the severity of famine, as well as the number of deaths by “sword,” “hunger” and “the beasts of the earth” (verses 6 and 8).
For more information on the four horsemen, see our article “What Are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?”
The book of Revelation features seven angels, each holding a trumpet. Every blast from these trumpets signals a catastrophic event that will profoundly impact the world (Revelation 8 and 9).
John likely connected this future time with the biblical Feast of Trumpets.
Leviticus 23 provides details on how the Israelites were to observe this day: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation” (verse 24, emphasis added throughout).
In the Old Testament, trumpet blasts from a ram’s horn or a metal trumpet were used for communication and warning about war or an impending calamity.
Given the destructive scale of the trumpet plagues in Revelation, which wreak havoc on the earth and kill much of mankind, this period corresponds with the prophesied “Day of the Lord.” The plagues, natural disasters, astronomical anomalies and carnage that accompany the trumpets all coincide with various descriptions of this time.
Consider how the prophet Joel associated trumpet blasts with the Day of the Lord: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble; for the day of the LORD is coming” (Joel 2:1).
Jeremiah also prophesied concerning this same time: “O my soul, my soul! I am pained in my very heart! My heart makes a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace, because you have heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war . . . I beheld the earth, and indeed it was without form, and void; and the heavens, they had no light” (Jeremiah 4:19, 23).
The trumpets of Revelation symbolize the beginning of the wrath of God on earth, which heralds Jesus’ imminent return.
Revelation 12 introduces us to a woman whose symbolism changes at least once over the course of the chapter.
The first thing we learn about her is her appearance—she is “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1).
The imagery of the sun, moon and stars goes back to a dream Joseph had, which provides background to this symbol. Notice what he said to his brothers: “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me” (Genesis 37:9). Joseph’s brothers were the 11 stars. His mother was the moon; his father, the sun.
Based on this connection, as well as how the woman in Revelation 12 gives birth to the Messiah (verse 5), this symbol represents the nation of Israel.
But after verse 5, her identity shifts. “Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days” (verse 6).
Fleeing and experiencing divine protection—this is what the New Testament Church did when Rome cracked down on Christianity, and what the end-time Church will do to escape deadly persecution. Verse 17 also supports this reading: “And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
The New Testament Church is the only group on earth that truly obeys God and Jesus Christ. We also know that the Church is called “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) and likened to “Jerusalem above,” which is “the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26).
Therefore, the woman also symbolizes the spiritual nation of Israel—the disciples and future wife of Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:7).
The beast is a prominent character in the saga of Revelation.
John describes it as “having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name.” He also likened it to “a leopard,” with feet “like the feet of a bear” and a mouth “like the mouth of a lion” (Revelation 13:1-2).
Obviously, no literal animal has these characteristics.
When examined more closely, we find that this passage parallels a vision Daniel had been given centuries earlier.
Daniel saw four beasts that represented four successive empires (Daniel 7:17): a lion (Babylon), a bear (Medo-Persia), a four-headed leopard (Greco-Macedonia) and an unidentified fourth (the Roman Empire), which he described as “dreadful and terrible” (verses 4-7).
John thus saw a composite of the same animals Daniel did, with each of the animals’ heads accounting for the seven in Revelation 13. Therefore, the beast symbolizes a final world-ruling empire, having absorbed each of its predecessors’ qualities—and exhibiting their combined strength.
This beast will have authority over “every tribe, tongue, and nation” (verse 7) and will prevail for 42 months (Revelation 11:2).
However, prophecy is clear that the beast can also refer to the personality at the helm of this global superpower (Revelation 19:20).
Learn more in article “Who Is the Beast?”
The second beast
John describes another beast that has “two horns like a lamb” but speaks “like a dragon” (Revelation 13:11). This individual presents himself as a lamb—which elsewhere symbolizes Christ—but has the heart of a dragon, or Satan (Revelation 12:9; Luke 6:45).
The second beast is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. While he gives off the appearance of being a Christian leader, his teachings reveal the opposite. And to bolster the claims about his identity, we’re told that he “performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men” (Revelation 13:13).
By making a display of his supernatural abilities, he will compel the entire world to openly worship the first beast (verse 12).
Later in the book of Revelation the second beast is called “the false prophet” (Revelation 16:13).
This second beast is an influential religious figure who reinforces the first beast’s authority. Together they will exercise worldwide control as an amalgamation of church and state.
But both beasts will be ripe for eternal destruction in the lake of fire, which Christ will carry out when He returns (Revelation 19:20).
The great harlot
Revelation 17 introduces us to a woman different from the one in Revelation 12. This woman is utterly immoral.
The first thing said about “the great harlot” is how she commits “fornication” with the kings of the earth (Revelation 17:1-2). This is symbolic language for establishing political alliances or syncretizing religious practices (Hosea 4:12-13; Ezekiel 16:26).
The beast she rides parallels the one in Revelation 13, which is the revived Roman Empire. This description reveals an end-time alliance between a religious system (the woman) and the civil power (the beast).
She is wealthy and attractive to the nations of the world: “The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls” (Revelation 17:4). But her impressive exterior clashes with the cup she holds, which is filled with “abominations and the filthiness of her fornication.”
In other words, this woman is dirty and corrupt because of what she espouses (abominations) and the influence she exerts on others (fornication).
The harlot is named Babylon the Great, and she represents a false church. She is the antithesis of the true Church of God, which is described throughout the Bible as a chaste virgin (2 Corinthians 11:2; Revelation 14:4).
She is also to blame for the “martyrs of Jesus” (Revelation 17:6). This no doubt describes the religious institution that has historically harassed and killed true Christians and will do so again—the Roman Church. (To study this further, see our article “Revelation 17: Who Is the Scarlet Woman?”)
Deepening your knowledge of these end-time events
This article is only an introductory guide.
As the world spirals into moral decline and as geopolitical tensions grow increasingly unstable, the relevance of the symbols in Revelation has become more apparent than ever. The fulfillment of these 2,000-year-old prophecies is drawing closer and closer.
If you want to further your understanding of Revelation, see our booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.