Summary: Written July 2023: Prophetic passages often contain types and symbols that need their proper interpretation to gain an accurate understanding. Some passages speak of the earth and sea, yet in some cases these terms are not meant to be taken literally. This article explains what their common meaning is in some prophetic passages.
The book of Revelation is a prophecy. It is the only New Testament book of its kind. There are many Old Testament books of prophecy – the characteristic topic of bible prophecy is Israel, the earth, and God’s government of the earth. The New Testament church is not the proper topic of prophecy. She has a heavenly calling and citizenship, and prophecy isn’t about heaven or heavenly things. That gives reason as to why there is only one N.T. book on this topic and further, that the true prophetic portion of the Revelation begins at the start of its fourth chapter, after the narrative stops talking about churches on the earth at the end of chapter three. This is the place in the book where “the things which are” come to an end and “the things which will take place after these” begin to be unfolded (Rev. 1:19).
As a prophecy, the Revelation contains a plethora of terms which must be taken as figures and symbols in order to make any sense of what we’re reading. But that doesn’t mean that everything is symbolic. There remain many terms that should be taken as literal. The difficulty is knowing which ones and even when. For example, earth and sea may at times literally mean the earth and sea; but in some other passages they are obvious symbols. Would the criticism that we aren’t being consistent in our interpretations be valid? Is our lack of uniformity of interpretation allowing us to make of visions and parables anything our thoughts might fancy? Are we being blatantly inconsistent and unreliable?
It is a mistake to require every vision to be literal or every term found in a prophetic passage to be a symbol/figure. We must be compelled by necessity to use the same term in one place literally while in another place figuratively. We must follow the principle of the highest spiritual reason, otherwise progress in understanding will not be attained. Figures pervade our everyday speech where we hardly notice them, disguised to us often by the mere fact that they are so common. We employ them too with a variance of meanings, which hardly changes their intelligibility to us. We use them freely without being arbitrary, but rather the opposite. The main point in using them is always clearness and intelligibility of communication. The use of figures is for this purpose, and therefore, a significant part of “the art of language.”
Let’s look at the different ways the terms “earth” and “sea” may be used in Scripture. We will find them used both literally and figuratively.
Isaiah 57:20 (NKJV)
But the wicked are like the troubled sea,
When it cannot rest,
Whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
Isaiah 17:12-13 (NKJV)
Woe to the multitude of many people
Who make a noise like the roar of the seas,
And to the rushing of nations
That make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters!
13 The nations will rush like the rushing of many waters;
But God will rebuke them and they will flee far away,
And be chased like the chaff of the mountains before the wind,
Like a rolling thing before the whirlwind.
The above passages from Isaiah get us started down the road to making the proper associations for the times when the term “sea” may be used as a figure. The word “like” is used repeatedly in the verses creating the comparisons (similes). The sea is often used as a figure representing restlessness and the unrestrained will of mankind. It can symbolize the masses in unbelief and apart from God, and thus represents the nations/Gentiles. Some form of this description will generally be the correct idea in many prophetic passages. This also infers the ideas that should be associated with the “earth” when it is used as a figure – the opposite meaning from “sea” is likely correct. It would imply that which is settled and organized, influenced by the government of God and the religions (Judaism and Christianity) whose practice He sanctions.
Revelation 17:1-2 (NKJV)
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication.”
Revelation 17:15 (NKJV)
Then he said to me, “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues.
The second passage above is the interpretation of a specific portion of the vision which begins in the first passage. This is a direct confirmation that “many waters” (sea) in this case is not literal but figurative. Many peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues reference the Gentiles. The harlot is a woman, and therefore a religious/ecclesiastical entity. She sits on the seven hills of Rome (Rev. 17:9). She is Roman Catholicism. Her “sitting” on the beast or on the many waters, I believe, is more than just influence, but ruling. Her abominations and fornications are not just with the kings of the Roman “earth,” but have reached well beyond to the Gentile nations in the rest of the world. “Abominations” is a figure referring to her idolatry; “fornications” refers to her unholy involvement in civil authorities/governments.
Matthew 13:47-50 (NKJV)
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, 48 which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, 50 and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew thirteen is a prophetic chapter containing seven parables that educate the believer about some of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:11, 35). Seven is a prophetic number referencing completeness/perfection – together the seven paint a complete picture of the soon coming kingdom of heaven. The first is generally descriptive about the effectiveness of the sowing of the word of the kingdom (Matt. 13:19), while the remaining six are all similitudes of the kingdom. The dragnet parable quoted above is the last of the seven parables. We might expect it to, in some way, bring an ending or conclusion.
The time encompassed in these parables begins with Jesus going back to heaven and the Holy Spirit being sent down. The kingdom of heaven couldn’t begin until this took place. The first four parables represent the period associated with the Christian dispensation. The harvest is the end of the age (Matt. 13:39), which all should know refers to the future seven-year tribulation and the return of Christ to this world. The last three parables speak of what God accomplishes in sovereign grace for the millennium, the last dispensation.
In our parable the sea in which the dragnet is cast represents the Gentile nations. The dragnet is the everlasting gospel as defined in Revelation (Rev. 14:6-7, Matt. 24:14). This will be preached during the last 3½ years of the tribulation to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people. It isn’t the Christian gospel of God’s grace through the cross, but the declaration of the hour of His judgment come for the world. The parable speaks of the judgment of the nations – the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46) – after the Son of Man returns in His glory with His holy angels.
Daniel 7:1-3 (NKJV)
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head while on his bed. Then he wrote down the dream, telling the main facts.
2 Daniel spoke, saying, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the Great Sea. 3 And four great beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other.
The four beasts come up from the sea in a progressive fashion though time. These were all Gentile world powers which would suppress Israel from Daniel’s time for the remainder of the Jewish dispensation. They are seen as beasts – a figure representing world empires ruling, but not submitting to God’s will or authority. First was Babylon, then Mede-Persia, Greece, and Rome.
Then I stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name. 2 Now the beast which I saw was like a leopard, his feet were like the feet of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority.
This beast here in Revelation thirteen is a revived version of the fourth beast in Daniel seven. It represents the revived Roman Empire in the future tribulation. It has incorporated the characteristics of the three world empires that preceded it in Daniel – the leopard (Greece); the bear (Mede-Persia); the lion (Babylon). By this, we should be confident we’re making the right general connection/interpretation. To fully understand the significance of the seven heads and ten horns we would have to compare all three prophetic passages in Scripture that describe this Roman civil power – Daniel 7, Rev. 13 and 17. That we’ll have to do in a different article at a different time.
Revelation 13:11 (NKJV)
Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon.
Along with the resurrection of the Roman imperial power (the beast out of the sea), we are shown the rise of another wild beast in Revelation thirteen. A beast is always a civil power that does not know God and therefore does not obey God’s will. Wild beasts convey the impression of savage cruelty, especially displayed against God’s people. But this beast is seen rising out of the “earth.” This surely is a direct contrast to rising out of the “sea.” If the sea depicts Gentiles, then in this obvious contrast, the earth depicts Israel.
The essential meaning of these figures can be found looking back to the creation account in Genesis. On the third day the earth was separated from the waters (Gen. 1:9-10). Dispensationally, this speaks of Israel being separated by God from the Gentiles. If this be true, which I do not doubt is, this beast we see in the second half of Revelation thirteen is a Jewish power.
A beast that looks like a lamb. We must consider this. Jesus Christ is the slain Lamb we saw in Revelation four, the only one in all creation deemed worthy enough to take and unseal this book of prophecy. But this is a beast that knows not God and speaks like the devil himself, and who looks like a lamb. This is certainly not Christ returned to Israel, but instead a false Christ rising up among the Jews. He is the Antichrist the apostles John and Paul spoke of (1 John 2:18, 22, 2 Thess. 2:3-4). Jesus once said to the Jews, “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me: if another comes in his own name, him you will receive.” He was speaking of the Antichrist (John 5:43).
Here are other places in Scripture where the terms “earth” and “sea” and “waters” are likely to be prophetic figures demanding much more than a literal interpretation (Luke 21:25, Rev. 7:1-3, Rev. 8:8-9, Rev. 12:12, 16). Here are examples where the earth and sea are literally the earth and sea (Rev. 5:13, Rev. 10:6, 8, Rev. 20:8, Rev. 21:1). Also examples of earthly events which are figurative (Rev. 6:12-13, Rev. 8:8, Matt. 24:29).