Numbers in Revelation

I would like to emphasize the fact that when Premillennialists argue that non-Premils use the wrong hermeneutical principles for interpreting Revelation that this is just simply not true.

The inverse is equally not true for any Amillennarians who think that Premils are making the same hermeneutical mistakes. And I’m sure you’ve heard the arguments. Amillennarians use too much symbolic or even allegorical interpretations in Revelation. And in response, Premils are too literalistic.

The Thousand Year Reign

As you can imagine how this relates to the subject of Revelation 20, both sides are considered to have implemented the wrong hermeneutic. Amillennarians emphasize that the book of Revelation itself is highly symbolic, therefore, a thousand years can easily be interpreted symbolically.

Premils demand that a thousand years cannot mean anything other than a thousand years. Both would recognize that context is most likely the determining factor.

Having said that, it’s not enough for the Premillennialist to simply demand that a thousand years means, literally a thousand. The Amillennarian’s claim is a valid one. If you’re in a book of prophecy that already utilizes a highly consistent amount of symbolism, what are the chances that a thousand years can be used to represent something other than a literal passage of time?

There are numerous other arguments that both the Amillennarian and the Premillennialist takes, but suffice it to say, the probability of interpretation favors the Amillennarian.

Numbers in the Book of Revelation

The closest to a viable response to the logic mentioned above from the Premil side has to be the use of numbers in the book of Revelation. It has been pointed out that numbers can be used symbolically but not always in Revelation. For example, there were literally seven churches and literally two witnesses.

The obvious response that both sides are forced to conclude is that there would be differences in literal vs. symbolic interpretations of numbers based on context. But clearly, that would result in both sides demanding that the context of Revelation 20 is in their favor.

Instead, what would be a viable criterion for examining how to handle numbers in the book of Revelation? Think it about it in terms of the 144,000.

I’ve noticed that Premils of all flavors either concede that this is symbolic or stick to this as being literal. John MacArthur, for example, still holds to it being a literal number. Those like MacArthur who hold to this kind of strict literalism are the ones who are extremely hard pressed to interpret numbers appropriately in their context.

How Do We Interpret the 144,000?

It’s possible that this is a literal number of actual ethnic Jews. As a Partial Preterist, it would make sense to me that this number is a number of actual Jews from the 1st century who survive the horrors of 70 AD. Other literal interpretations like MacArthur’s contend that this is a literal number of ethnic Jews in the future, corresponding to a restoration of Israel.

The interesting thing to note is that even if one holds to either literal interpretation, there still is a problem. This is pointed out by Dr. Thomas Ice. In his article, he mentions the fact that the 144,000 is number representing the men. He introduces this fact by stating, “Below are reasons why this passage means what it says and refers to exactly 144,000 Jewish guys (no gals or Gentiles included), and 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel”.

With that in mind, it’s clear that the number 144,000 isn’t meant to be taken to mean that 144,000 is the sum total of all this group of sealed individuals. But that it is representative of a much larger number. This is a literary device that is used throughout Scripture. There were tons more who left Egypt than 600,000 (Exodus 12:37) and there were far more than 5,000 that Jesus fed (Matthew 14:21).

It’s fascinating to see Dr. Thomas Ice noting the exclusion of “gals and Gentiles” in the number, but failing to take into account the fact that that means the number is used just like it is throughout the rest of Scripture, to indicate a much larger number of those sealed.

The Categories of Numbers

With this concept in mind, there is a basic criterion that we can establish for handling numbers in the book of Revelation. Simply put, small numbers should probably be interpreted literally and large numbers should probably be interpreted as representative of much larger quantities or representative of something else other than the number expressed.

Thus, it’s irrelevant for those who are honest enough to admit that numbers are used both literally and symbolically in the book of Revelation. As we can recognize that small numbers are literal whereas large numbers are not.



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  1. I appreciate the paper and your insights; however, I would argue that all prophecy needs to be consistent. For example, the same logic is used by many with prophetic days. There must be rules of interpretation otherwise all scripture can mean what ever the reader wants it to mean.

    Large numbers versus smaller number having the meaning of figurative versus literal is not consistent but what is is figurative interpretation. I would ask this: When is a number small enough to be literal or big enough to be figurative?

    There is no answer; therefore that is not a sound method of interpretation.

    Take the following verses about prophetic days:

    Numbers 14:34 “After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know my breach of promise.”

    Ezekiel 4:5 “For I have laid upon thee the years of their iniquity, according to the number of the days, three hundred and ninety days: so shalt thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel.”

    Ezekiel 4:6 “And when thou hast accomplished them, lie again on thy right side, and thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed thee each day for a year.”

    “I have appointed thee each day for a year.” This is a commandment from GOD! It also should be noted that throughout the rest of the Bible GOD never nullifies it. This cannot be ignored; scriptural interpretation cannot be changed to fit one’s doctrine!

    I believe Revelation is figurative. Satan is not thrown into a literal bottomless pit nor are the two witnesses two people because individual people are not lamp stands and Olive trees. But they are symbolic for the Christian Gentiles and remnant Christian Jews.


    1. Hello Dave.

      I agree that there needs to be rules of interpretation. However, context is always king in determining the meaning. Revelation has multiple genres in it. It isn’t just a prophecy. There are historical aspects contained within the didactic portions. The 7 churches were real historical churches.

      This fact demands that we don’t apply rules that belong to prophecy to these passages. Also, when you say, “There is no answer,” this is the answer.

      The fact that the Lampstands represent churches doesn’t negate the fact that there are still seven of them. Your interpretation of the two witnesses is common. However, it is still disputed. Furthermore, if the two witnesses are symbolic for Jews and Gentiles, that doesn’t negate the fact that there are still literally two groups. The meaning of the numbers doesn’t change. Even if the two functions like count nouns or refer to groups, there can still be just two. So these are clear examples of there being “two” or “seven,” which are literally “two” or “seven.”

      The issue comes into play when you have 144,000 or 1,000 years. The 144,000 that are saved are immediately qualified as an innumerable amount. As I show in my post about the present realities proving a present millennium, there’s too much in the context of Revelation 20 that shows that the 1,000 isn’t a literal passage of time.

      So while I agree wholeheartedly, and I thoroughly respect your desire for consistency, the main issue is letting the context determine the meaning. Which *is* what hermeneutics actually teaches.

      Thanks for the comment!

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