The language in which the book is written is of intense interest. It is so unusual. It combines Hebrew thought and Greek speech. It is as though a Hebrew soul were living in a Greek body, and the soul has so dominated the body as to make decided changes in it. The thought and imagery, and the very words are largely taken over from the Old Testament, much of it not being found elsewhere in the New Testament. It is as though the Old Testament reaches clear over the intervening space and writes the last book of the New as an additional book of the Old, but with distinct additions. But all these additions are outgrowths of what is already in the Old.
But while the thought and imagery are Hebrew, the language is Greek. But scholars note that John's Greek here is different from that of his Gospel, and is indeed peculiar to itself, with new grammatical adjustments, as though better to express his Hebrew thought. Yet, like the Gospel, it is an easy Greek to learn and to understand. It is as though the Old Testament were the warp of a new bit of fabric, with the New as the shuttle-threads, and yet with such additions as makes the pattern stand out much more definite and clear, and the colours in it more pronounced. Thus this end-book is a weaving of both Old and New into a new bit of fabric, but with a more distinct pattern than either.
This explains the use of the symbolism which is so marked here. The picture language of John's Revelation has seemed very puzzling. It has seemed like a new language, to which we had neither grammar nor dictionary, and the intended meaning of which we could only guess at. But this is because we are Westerners and a bit set in our western way. And possibly, too, though we dislike to confess it, because we have not gotten a clear, simple grasp of this old Book of God as a whole. The Bible is an Oriental book, written in the characteristic picture language of the Orient.
The truth is that the symbol or picture language is meant to make the book easier of understanding. We simply need to learn how to read picture language, not whimsically, but sensibly according to the laws of picture language. The symbolism or picture sees things as they look at the moment the picture is taken. The picture is meant to give one general distinct impression of the thing being presented, the details of the picture being of value only as they give coloring to that one general impression. It is concerned, not at all, or only in the most incidental way, with the process by which the thing came to the point pictured.
There is a rare wisdom in the use of this picture language. It is really the common language not of the Orient merely, but of all the world. In our western half of the globe it is the language of the street, the common crowd, the common exchange of life, and of children. It is the language of the primitive peoples of all parts of the world. Everywhere the conventionalized book-language is spoken by the few. The picture, with its companion, the story, is the universal, the original, the natural language of the race.
On the mere human side here is one secret of the freshness of the Bible. It is the oldest book in some of its parts, but admitted to be the freshest and most modern in its adaptation to modern life. And the reason is simple. The pictures give principles. Principles don't change with the changing of centuries. Rules change. Principles abide. Details alter with every generation. Principles of action are as unchangeable as human nature, which is ever the same, east and west, below the equator, and above.
John's Revelation is naturally full of this picture language, for it is a gathering up of the chief threads of the old Oriental Hebrew fabric. It will help us understand the meaning if we keep in mind the simple rules of this Hebrew picture language.
John, of course, was a Hebrew, born and bred in a Hebrew home, and immersed in the old Hebrew Bible from the time of his mother's milk. What Greek language and culture had come was a bit of the outer world come into his Hebrew home and life. Now in his old age the early memory is asserting itself.
Then too it is quite likely that in his imprisonment he had been brooding anew over the old prophecies, reviewing afresh events since the resurrection of Jesus,—the growth of the Church, and now the severe persecution, with himself a prisoner. And while he in no way doubts the unseen overruling Hand, yet he is seeking to get a fresh outlook into the future from the old prophetic writings.
And through all of this without doubt the Holy Spirit was brooding in unusual measure over this man, reviving early memory, bringing to his remembrance all things of other days, deepening impressions, bringing old facts into new perspective, giving clearer vision, mellowing and maturing both mind and heart into fresh plastic openness to further truth. And so we have this little book with its Hebrew soul and its Greek body.
The meaning of all this is very simple, and yet a meaning of intense significance. Here is summed up the whole of the revelation of God's Word. Here all the lines of Revelation meet. Almost two thousand years of inspiration come to a climax in this little end-book. Psalmist and prophet, historian and law-giver, Gospel and Epistle come to a final focus point in one simple intense message. The purpose of the book is in tensely and only practical. Here is the message of the whole Bible to Christ's people for this present interval between the Ascension and the next great step in our Lord's world-plan.