Numbers in Revelation

In Revelation 20, the phrase “thousand years” (χίλια ἔτη) occurs six times. This phrase establishes the length of Christ’s reign. It is the position of Premillennialism that this is to be understood as a literal time period of one thousand years when Jesus will rule while actually on this present earth. It is the view of both Amillennialism and Postmillennialism that this phrase is to be taken as a figure of speech; that is, χίλια ἔτη is speaking of a long period of time, namely this present church age. This view assumes that numbers in the Book of Revelation are so very often just figurative and, therefore, the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 is best put into the symbolic category. Amillennial scholar Anthony Hoekema clearly states this position.

“The Book of Revelation is full of symbolic numbers. Obviously the number “thousand” which is used here must not be interpreted in the literal since. Since the number ten signifies completeness, and since a thousand is ten to the third power, we may think of the expression “a thousand years” as standing for a complete period, a very long period of indeterminate length… We may conclude that this thousand-year period extends from Christ’s first coming to just before his Second Coming.”

(from “The Meaning of the Millennium” ed. R. Clouse, p.161)

Hoekema’s view is commonly held by those who are not Premillennial. But when we look carefully at the use of numbers in the Book of Revelation (and in biblical apocalyptic literature) it is not at all “obvious” that the number “thousand” must not be interpreted in the literal sense. The following data needs to be considered when dealing with the phrase “thousand years” in Revelation 20.

(1) The Basic Function of Numbers

The most basic function of numbers is to designate the quantity of something. Numbering systems have always been devised for the purpose of expressing QUANTITATIVE functions such as counting, determining order, making measurements, performing calculations and expressing quantity. A number is, and always has been, by its very nature literal (i.e. 5=5, 23=23, 167=167, etc.) Historically, numbers were not used symbolically. Some in the course of history have been involved in gematria (number mysticism). They have specific attached meanings to specific numbers. For example, “5” stands for grace or God’s goodness; “12” = governmental perfection; and “28” = eternal life. Every number has such meanings attributed to them, though different men have come up with entirely different lists of meanings. Even the casual observer is struck by the complete lack of objectivity to such systems. And upon closer inspection it is discovered that some numbers have nearly the identical meaning as others; others simply do not fit the given meanings, as well as the fact that some numbers are used so infrequently (or not at all) that it is just impossible to see how they can be symbolic of anything.

(2) The Number “7”

The number “7” is used frequently in the Book of Revelation. Dr. John J. Davis in his book “Biblical Numerology” presents a convincing case that no number carries in it an inherent meaning. He demonstrates that the only exception is the number seven which seems to sometimes have the idea of “perfection” or “completeness”. This is derived from its usage in the Bible as well as in other ancient cultures (e.g. Egypt and Ugarit), possibly because of the seven days of creation. It could be that oral tradition passed on since the creation week into many cultures was the catalyst for the number “7” having the special significance of completeness. But even in its use in the Bible, the number “7” does not lose its normal quantitative value, nor does it always carry the idea of “completeness” (for example, there is probably no symbolic meaning in Paul staying 7 days in Troas). And when Revelation speaks of 7 seal judgments, 7 trumpet judgments and 7 bowl judgments it could be communicating that the judgment of God is a perfect and complete judgment. But it is also true that there are actually 7 seals, 7 trumpets and 7 bowls. It should be noted that it is primarily the large usage of the number “7” that makes such and observation possible. But no other number, including the number one thousand, carries symbolic meaning with it.

(3) The Use of Numbers in Biblical Apocalyptic Literature

Much of the imagery in the Book of Revelation has been used and essentially defined by the writers of the Old Testament. It is worth noting that in Biblical apocalyptic literature, numbers are used in their normal way about 94% of the time; that is, the numbers used express quantitative functions, which is their usual purpose. (See Stephen Carlson, “The Relevance of Apocalyptic Numerology for the Meaning of χίλια ἔτη in Revelation 20”. Ph. D. dissertation, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, 1990).

Such a statistic immediately raises concerns about numbers in the Book of Revelation labeled “symbolic” since the normal use of numbers in biblical, apocalyptic literature is according to the basic function of numbers. Does this pattern hold true in Revelation?

(4) The Use of Numbers in the Book of Revelation

There are 240 occurrences of numbers in the Book of Revelation (this is assuming that my counting is correct!). Eliminating the six occurrences of “thousand years” in Revelation 20 (the meaning of which we are trying to determine), that leaves 234 times where numbers are used. Of these occurrences:
19 times fractions are used (i.e. 1/3 of the earth burned up)
59 times as in numerical sequences (i.e. the 4th angel sounded)
162 times as full numbers (i.e. 24 elders)

Out of the 234 numbers used (excluding the 6 in Revelation 20), it seems to me that the vast majority of the numbers are to be interpreted in the way that numbers are normally interpreted; that is as expressing quantities. So when we read that there are seven churches, there are seven actual churches that are in view and we can count them. When we read of 144,000 men carefully selected in groups of 12,000 from 12 specific Israelite tribes, there is no reason not to understand that these are normal quantitative expressions. Why should we not understand that an army of 200,000,000 is actually composed of that number or that 42 months means 42 months?

It seems that only 16 times in Revelation numbers are symbolic. If this is correct then Revelation pretty much follows the rest of biblical, apocalyptic literature by using numbers in their normal quantitative use about 93% of the time. Of the 16 times when the number is symbolic, 15 times they are symbolic of established, literal entities. The one exception is Revelation 13:18 where the “666” mark of the beast is mentioned. The “666” is to be understood as the numerical value of the beast’s name but it clearly has a mystical significance. Since this number is found nowhere else, no help come from other sources. The other 15 symbolic occurrences are as follows:

(1) The 7 SPIRITS (Rev. 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) and the 7 LAMPS (Rev. 4:5)—apparently refers to the prominence/fullness of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the world. This imagery is clearly based on Zechariah 3:9; 4:1-10 and Exodus 25:37.

(2) The 7 HORNS and the 7 EYES (Rev. 5:6)—this pictures Christ as the all-powerful sovereign as well as being omniscient. This imagery is also based on Zechariah 3 and 4 along with Daniel 7:20; 8:5.

(3) The 4 CORNERS OF THE EARTH and the 4 WINDS OF HEAVEN (Rev. 7:1; 20:8)—the 4 corners of the earth is a term to designate the four directions of the compass, thus the “whole earth” and the 4 winds represent God’s destructive judgments that are being temporarily held back by the angels. This imagery is based on Jeremiah 49:36-38; Isaiah 11:12; Daniel 7:2.

(4) The use of 1 HOUR and 1 DAY (Rev. 17:12; 18:8, 10, 17, 19)—these expressions are used to emphasize the suddenness of the unfolding events. The kings (Rev. 17:12) will give their authority to the beast for one hour (not just 60 minutes because Daniel tells us that they are in league with him for some 7 years) and the judgments (Rev. 18:8-19) will likely not just be over in a 24 hour period to have meaning to those on the earth, but will happen suddenly and quickly. This imagery is found in Isaiah 49:7-9, a chapter to which Revelation 18 is apparently to be linked.

CONCLUSION

So when we come to the six uses of “thousand years” in Revelation 20, how should we best interpret the phrase? When we look at this data from Revelation it does not appear that the phrases “obviously…must not be interpreted in the literal since.” Just the opposite would appear to be the case. The evidence that the 1,000 years of Revelation 20 is speaking of an actual 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth is very strong.

First, the normal and universal use of numbers is not symbolic but is to indicate the quantity of something. To attach meanings to numbers (usually quite arbitrarily) is to engage in a highly speculative and subjective practice. On what basis can it be said that the number 10 “signifies completeness.”

Second, the vast majority of times (over 90%), apocalyptic literature uses numbers in the normal quantitative way. This calls into question the oft-repeated statement of amillennialism and postmillennialism that Revelation is filled with symbolic numbers.

Third, only the number 7, on occasion, appears to have symbolic significance and even then it usually retains its quantitative meaning.

Fourth, the phrase “thousand years” does not appear anywhere else in Revelation or in any other apocalyptic literature and thus there is no possible symbolic meaning that can be brought in from some mother source. Peter’s use of the phrase, in 2 Peter 3:8, is not a tall symbolic. He is not saying that a day equals a thousand years but simply reveals how much God can do in a single day. Peter’s point only makes sense if he issuing “day” and “years” in their usual quantitative since. One must, therefore, look to the context of Revelation 19-22 and the larger context of the entire Book of Revelation.

Fifth, there is nothing within the final vision of John in Revelation 19-22 that compels one to abandon the normal use of numbers. In fact, other expressions in that context would argue for taking the 1,000 years literally. The point here is that John uses indefinite terms in Revelation 19-22, such as “a short time” and “forever and ever.” And so, when he uses the specific phrase “1,000 years” instead of some indefinite term, we would think that it should be understood specifically as numbers usually are.

Sixth, indefinite expressions are used in Revelation where we are told that there are “thousands and thousands” around the throne (Rev. 5:11) and a “great multitude” (Rev. 7:9). John is obviously capable of expressing numbers in general, non-specific ways. This he did not do when discussing the length of Messiah’s kingdom.

Seventh (in order to have a “complete” conclusion) the use of “thousand” does occur in Revelation in several places where multiples of “thousand” are given; such as 12,000 from each Israelite drive. These uses seem to make a normal rendering of such statements as far more reasonable than a symbolic one.

We must conclude that John’s use of χίλια ἔτη (thousand years) is to communicate the fact that when the Lord Jesus returns to this earth, He will reign for 1,000 years.

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