Understanding Revelation — Rich Kelsey

Half-moon photo taken by Rich Kelsey

Understanding the Book of Revelation — Introduction

A formula for understanding the Bible’s book of Revelation, published in two bestselling books[i] on Bible prophecy in the 1970s, has continued to impact the Christian world to this day. It started when Hal Lindsey[ii] and co-author Carole C. Carlson explained that the Apostle John, who wrote the book of Revelation, was limited to using the language of his day. And, since John had no concept of future things, like nuclear weapons, he described a hydrogen bomb exploding over one of earth’s oceans as,

“… a burning mountain being thrown into the sea.”[iii]

Hal’ Lindsey’s works made a case for inserting 20th century concepts into the 1st century book of Revelation. Using this principle, Lindsey also suggested that the smoke locusts of Revelation chapter 9 could be an advanced type of helicopter:[iv]

“And out of the smoke locusts came down upon the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” (Revelation 9:3-4)

Lindsey’s approach made Revelation’s images much easier to understand; as a result, millions of people bought into his method of interpretation. And, while the memories of Hal Lindsey’s early books may have faded with time, his ideas about the book of Revelation are still fresh in people’s minds.  

Yet, there are problems with maintaining that what the Apostle John saw in his visions and recorded in Revelation are descriptions of hydrogen bombs and helicopters: The concept runs contrary to the meaning of symbolic language used throughout scripture.

Symbolic language, also known as figurative language,[v] is,

“speech or writing that departs from literal meaning… ” (Dictionary.com 21st Century Lexicon)

Here is an example of the Bible’s symbolic language: In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the LORD called King Rezin and a man named Pekah,

“… two smoldering stubs of firewood.” (Isaiah 7:4)

These men were trying to overthrow the Kingdom of Judah. Obviously, they were not literally,

“… two smoldering stubs of firewood.”

So, let’s ask the question: What might smoldering stubs of firewood represent?

In nature, a smoldering fire is a fire lacking in strength and on the verge of going out. Therefore, perhaps the LORD was using the imagery of smoldering stubs of firewood to let Isaiah know that the Kingdom of Judah was no longer facing a serious threat from King Rezin and Pekah. A careful look into the context of Isaiah 7:4 reveals this is exactly what the LORD was conveying.

Also, this failed overthrow of the Kingdom of Judah had nothing to do with literal fire, firewood, or what may have looked like firewood to Isaiah.

People will never understand what Isaiah 7:4 means until they realize the subject at hand has nothing to do with what has the appearance of smoldering wood. Also, taking what Isaiah said literally will most certainly lead to a false understanding.

One thing to keep in mind: The bible’s book of Revelation was written using the same symbolic language as Isaiah. Therefore, passages from Revelation about burning wood may also have nothing to do with literal fire.

Here is an example:

“The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.” (Revelation 8:7)

While explaining this passage Hal Lindsey wrote:

“To John’s eyes, unsophisticated as to ICBM’s the holocaust he witnesses looked like ‘hail and fire mixed with blood.'” (There’s A New World Coming, Hal Lindsey, Vision House, 1973, p. 130)

Along with Hal Lindsey, many authors insist that the trees and grass mentioned in Revelation chapter 8 are literally trees and grass; not symbolic of something else. Yet we have already seen a verse in Isaiah speaking of smoldering firewood is actually an illustration of people. People are often likened to trees in scripture. Also, in Matthew 13 people are illustrated as wheat[vi], which is a type of grass; and it’s explained that the field the wheat is in is the world:

“The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom.” (Matthew 13:38)

So there are reasons to consider that the trees and grass mentioned in Revelation 8:7 may also represent people.

Some of us may be thinking,

“I would be more inclined to consider that the trees in Revelation chapter 8 are symbolic of people if there is a clear passage in Revelation itself comparing trees to people.”

Revelation contains such a passage:

“‘… And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.’ These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.” (Revelation 11:3-4) 

Whether one believes that Revelation’s Two Witnesses are literally two people, or, if they believe they may represent two groups of people, one thing is certain: The Two Witnesses are clearly depicted as trees in Revelation. Also, if the symbolism in Revelation remains consistent throughout its pages, trees may very well represent people, or groups of people, elsewhere in the book; such as in Revelation chapter 8.

Therefore, let’s continue to look in the Bible to see if we can find out what this fire and the burning of green vegetation in Revelation 8:7 may represent.

There is a similar prophecy of a forest burning in the Bible’s book of Isaiah:

“Surely wickedness burns like a fire; it consumes briers and thorns, it sets the forest thickets ablaze, so that it rolls upward in a column of smoke. By the wrath of the LORD Almighty the land will be scorched and the people will be fuel for the fire… ” (Isaiah 9:18-19)

In Isaiah, wickedness burns, 

“… like a fire;”

meaning it’s not a literal fire. Obviously literal fire is needed to burn a literal forest. So, evidently the trees in Isaiah are not literal trees.

Because wickedness and people are mentioned in the passage in question, perhaps the forest thickets which are ablaze in Isaiah, are symbolic of people who have become inflamed due to wickedness?

One thing is certain: If the trees and grass in Revelation chapter 8 are literal in nature, then it will be obvious to everyone when the first trumpet judgment takes place; because one third of earth’s trees will have literally burned up. On the other hand, if the trees and grass represent things other than literal trees and grass, such as people, then the first trumpet judgment could come to pass without a single tree being burned up.        

Trees and Grass in Scripture:

Throughout the Bible, churches, nations, kingdoms, and men, are often likened to trees, as well as wheat, corn, weeds and grass.

Here is an example:

“A voice says, ‘Call out.’ Then he answered, ‘What shall I call out?’ All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, When the breath of the LORD blows upon it; The people are indeed grass!” (Isaiah 40:6-7)

On this subject, Jesus said,

“The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.'” (Matthew 13:38-40)

In the Old Testament it’s recorded:

“All the trees of the field will know that I the LORD bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. ‘I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it.’” (Ezekiel 17:24)

Obviously, literal trees do not know or consider anything. So, the words,

“All the trees of the field will know… ” (Ezekiel 17:24)

likely points to the trees being symbolic of something that can think.

Figurative language is abundant in prophetic scripture, as demonstrated by this next passage:

“A bruised reed he [Jesus] will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out… ” (Isaiah 42:3)

Is the reed of grass in Isaiah chapter 42:3 speaking of people?


And, understanding that Isaiah chapter 42:3 demands a non-literal interpretation, why not consider that the grass in Revelation chapter 8 may also be pointing to something other than literal vegetation?

Along these lines, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus said,

“… ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.'” (Matthew 13:3-6)

Was Jesus Christ speaking of literal vegetation in Matthew 13? No. He was speaking about people because he went on to explain:

“When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. (Matthew 13:19-21)

Notice the words,

“… falls away”

in that last passage. The people that fall away are the same people who are described as plants who were scorched by the sun in Matthew 13:6. Therefore, the burning trees and green grass in Revelation chapter 8 may very well be symbolic of apostasy from the Christian faith. Trees could represent the more mature Christians, while the green grass may represent those with shallow faith.

Perhaps in the book of Revelation the reason only green grass is mentioned being burned up, and not dried grass, is because dried grass is already dead; so having dried grass burn up would not fit well with symbolism depicting a falling away from the Christian faith.

Another Example of Symbolic Language in Scripture:

“In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel.” (Isaiah 4:2)

The words “Branch” and “fruit” in Isaiah chapter 4:2 have nothing to do with literal vegetation. This is symbolic language used to paint a picture of spiritual truth. Along these lines Jesus explained:

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit…” (John 15:5)

The book of Revelation is, in a sense, a compilation of figurative scripture found throughout scripture. Much of what is in Revelation can be found in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah. In those books, trees are often used to represent men, groups of people, and nations. When the prophet Isaiah wrote about,

“… all the cedars of Lebanon … ” (Isaiah 2:13)

Isaiah wasn’t speaking about literal trees. Isaiah’s subject matter is,

“arrogant men”


“the pride of men.”

The two previous verses make that abundantly clear.

Also, in Isaiah it is written:

“Even the pine trees and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you and say, ‘Now that you have been laid low, no woodsman comes to cut us down.'” (Isaiah 14:8)

The trees in Isaiah 14:8 are also illustrations of men.

Revelation 1:19-20 is virtually a tutorial on how to interpret the book. Verse 19 instructs John to

“write what things you see and what they ARE” (Greek – ‘eisin’).

The second clause means to write down the interpretations of what John sees that were given to him. This is a formula for how to interpret many of John’s visions; Revelation frequently provides interpretations of its symbols. This John does in the very next verse when he writes

“the seven stars ARE (‘eisin’) the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands ARE (‘eisin’) the seven churches.”

More Examples of Where The Book of Revelation Interprets Itself:

“The ten horns you saw ARE ten kings… ” (Revelation 17:12)

“… The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, ARE peoples, multitudes, nations and languages.” (Revelation 17:15)

Horns = kings and/or the power they possess.

Waters = peoples/etc.

Once we understand that symbolism in scripture remains consistent throughout, and realize that the book of Revelation was written using the same symbolic language, then ask ourselves,

“What might these symbols represent?”

Then we are on our way to understanding The Book of Revelation.

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[ii] Hal Lindsey, considered by many to be the father of modern bible prophecy, published his first book, The Late Great Planet Earth, in 1970.  It was the first book on bible prophecy to be picked up by a secular publisher; (Bantam, 1973) and has since sold over 28 million copies.

[iii] “… and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea.” (Revelation 8:8)

[iv] “Some writers have chosen to interpret each symbol quite literally. For example, a locust with the face of a man… I personally tend to think that God might utilize in his judgments some modern devices of man which the Apostle John was at a loss for words to describe nineteen centuries ago! In the case just mentioned, the locusts might symbolize an advanced kind of helicopter.” (THERE’S A NEW WORLD COMING, Hal Lindsey, Introduction, p. 16)

[v] Defining Figurative Language

Figurative language is language that uses words or expressions with a meaning that is different from the literal interpretation. When a writer uses literal language, he or she is simply stating the facts as they are. Figurative language, in comparison, uses exaggerations or alterations to make a particular linguistic point. Figurative language is very common in poetry, but is also used in prose and nonfiction writing as well.

There are many different types of figurative language. For example:

Symbolism: Symbolism occurs when a noun which has meaning in itself is used to represent something entirely different. One example of symbolism would be to use an image of the American flag to represent patriotism and a love for one’s country. (Figurative Language, YourDictionary, online)

[vi] “But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.”(Matthew 13:25)

[vii] John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible:

A bruised reed shall not break

The tenderness of Christ to weak and ignorant persons is here and in the next clause expressed; by whom young converts or weak believers seem to be designed; who are compared to a “reed”, because worthless with respect to God, whom they cannot profit; and in the view of men, who reckon them as nothing; and in themselves, and in their own view, who judge themselves unworthy of the least of mercies; and because they are weak, not only as all men are, of which weakness they are sensible; but they are weak in grace, especially in faith, and have but little hope, their love is the strongest; and because they are wavering like the reed, tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, and shaken with the temptations of Satan, and disturbed with many doubts and fears; and are like a “bruised” reed that is squeezed, and almost broke to pieces, and so of no use; these are broken in heart, under a sense of sin and unworthiness; whose spirits are bruised and wounded with it, and whose hearts are contrite on account of it. On these Christ does not lay his iron rod, but holds out the golden scepter of his grace to them; he does not call them to service and sufferings beyond their strength; but strengthens, supports, and upholds them with the right hand of his righteousness; he binds up their broken hearts, having poured in the balm of Gilead, his own blood, and the wine and oil of his love; he encourages them in their application to him for salvation, and manifests his pardoning grace, and restores comforts to them, and revives their souls: and the smoking flax shall he not quench; or, “the wick of a candle; {h}” which just going out, has some heat, a little light, smokes, and is offensive; so the persons intended by it are fired or lighted by the divine word; have some heat of affection in them to spiritual things, but have but little light; into the corruption of nature into the glories of Christ’s person; into the doctrines of the Gospel; into the everlasting love of God, and the covenant of grace; and but little light of joy and comfort, and this almost gone, and seemingly ready to go out; and yet Christ will not extinguish it, or suffer it to be extinct; he does not discourage small beginnings of grace, or despise the day of small things; he blows up their light into a flame; he increases their spiritual light and knowledge…”