H. Grattan Guinness:
To “signify” is to show by signs, to intimate your meaning, not in plain words, but by signs and symbols.
Now it were clearly folly, to confound the sign with the thing signified. In a language of signs, each sign and each combination of signs, has a definite meaning. The first verse of the book therefore answers our first question about it: is it to be understood literally? No! IT is A BOOK OF SIGNS. Its true meaning is veiled under significant figures, and a process of translation must take place, ere that true meaning can be reached. Each symbol used, must be separately studied, and its force gathered, from its context, from comparison with other scriptures, from its own nature, and from such explanations as are given in the prophecy itself, before we can expect to discover the mind of the Spirit of God in this book.
A good illustration:
If on opening a letter from a friend, the first sentence that met the eye was “I write in Latin in order that my letter may not be understood by all,” we should at once be prepared to translate as we read; we should not pore over a certain combination of letters and syllables, trying in vain to make some intelligible English word out of them; we should say the word is so and so, but the meaning is so and so. In reading the symbolic portion of the Apocalypse, we are bound to do the same; on no other principle can anything like a consistent interpretation be attained. The nature of the case forbids it. And yet an opposite maxim of interpretation is often laid down; it is said, take everything literally unless you are forced by impossibility in the nature of things, to give a symbolic signification. This is like saying, if you can find any combination of letters or syllables in this Latin letter, that will form any English word, take it as English, but where you cannot possibly make anything out of them as English, then no doubt they are Latin.
What a singularly lucid communication would be the result of such a system of interpretation I And yet, alas! it is in connection with the Apocalypse too common, among some, whose spirituality and intelligence ought to be fruitful of more wisdom. Such interpreters argue in defence of the monstrosities evoked by their hybrid system, somewhat in this way: “The Nile was once literally turned to blood, we doubt not therefore that this prediction, Revelation viii.8, the third part of the sea became blood, means just what it says.; God, who wrought the one miracle, can accomplish the other.” Undoubtedly: the question is not what God can do, but what He here says He will do. Now Exodus is a literal history; when it says the river became blood it means it; Revelation is, a symbolic prophecy, when therefore it says “the third part of the sea became blood,” it does not mean it, but it means something entirely different; and it is needful not only to substitute a future for a past time, but to translate these symbols into plain language, in order to ascertain what the meaning really is.
False literalism confounds the sign:
And finally the principle of progressive revelation, demands that these visions should not be taken as literal predictions of a coming crisis at the end of the age. Other previous prophecies, had already brought down the chain of events To the destruction and fall of Jerusalem, and our Lord Himself in treating of it, passed on To the final crisis, of which it was a precursor. The one and only period, unillumined by prophetic light was the church’s history on earth. Our Lord had revealed little, save its general character as a time of tribulation; the other apostles had foretold certain events which were To characterize its course; it remained for the Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave To Him, and which He now sends, as his last gift To the churches, To map it out in detail, and present in a mystic form, all its lea ding outlines. If the Apocalypse merely went over again, the events of the final crisis, it would not be an advance on all previous revelation, as its place in the canon of Scripture warrants our concluding that it is. To be this, it must be a symbolical history of the Christian dispensation.