As we read the book of Revelation figurative or symbolical expressions are met on every hand. The churches are symbolized by the seven golden candlesticks. Seven spirits before the throne are used to symbolize the fullness of the one Holy Spirit. We read of the Lamb having seven horns. We do not expect to see a literal lamb, nor seven literal horns, but know that this symbolizes the fullness of the power of Christ. Twelve is the number of the Church, and wherever the Church is mentioned we have this number or its multiple,-twelve apostles, twenty-four elders, or the totality of God’s people symbolized by the number 144,000. In the Bible the number ten stands for rounded totals. Hence we have the moral law summarized in the ten commandments. Ten plagues on Egypt, each directed at a god worshipped by the Egyptians, showed the complete superiority of the God of the Hebrews over the gods of Egypt. In the tabernacle the Holy of Holies, the place in which God manifested His presence, was ten cubits long, ten cubits wide, and ten cubits high. The cube, with all sides equal, symbolizes perfection. A thousand is the cube of ten, and symbolizes vastness of number or time. In Psalm 50:10 the expression ‘the cattle upon a thousand hills’ does not mean that only the cattle on a thousand hills are the Lord’s but that all of the cattle on all of the hills of the world are His. When the Lord told Peter that he should forgive his brother not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matt. 18:22), He did not mean 490 times, but that he should forgive him as many times as he sincerely asked to be forgiven. The New Jerusalem, of which we read in Revelation 21, is pictured as a city in the form of a cube, 12,000 furlongs (1500 miles) on an edge, a figure which symbolizes perfection, grandeur and vastness. ‘The length and breadth and the height are equal,’ says John. The city was surrounded by a wall 144 cubits high (12 squared), or 216 feet, which to the people to whom John wrote would symbolize absolute safety. Neither the shape nor the dimensions of the city can be taken with mathematical exactness, as if it were a gigantic apartment house.
In Revelation 20 we do not understand John to write of a literal dragon or of a literal serpent. Nor do we understand him to say that the angel has a literal key or a literal chain in his hand with which he binds the Devil. The ‘thousand years’ is quite clearly not to be understood as an exact measure of time but rather as a symbolical number. Strict arithmetic has no place here. The term is a figurative expression, indicating an indefinitely long period of time, a complete, perfect number of years, probably not less than a literal one thousand years, in all probability very much longer. It is, however, a definitely limited period, during which certain events happen, and after which certain other events are to follow. Concerning this symbolism of numbers Dr. Warfield says:
‘It is quite certain that the number 1000 represents in Bible symbolism absolute perfection and completeness; and that the symbolism of the Bible includes also the use of a period of time in order to express the idea of greatness, in connection with thoroughness and completeness. It can scarcely be necessary to insist here afresh on the symbolical use of numbers in the Apocalypse and the necessity consequently laid upon the interpreter to treat them consistently not merely as symbols but as embodying definite ideas. They constitute a language, and like any other language they are misleading unless intended and read as expressions of definite ideas. When the seer says seven or four or three or ten, he does not name these numbers at random but expresses by each a specific notion. The sacred number seven in combination with the equally sacred number three forms the number of holy perfection, ten, and when this ten is cubed into a thousand the seer has said all he could say to convey to our minds the idea of absolute completeness. It is of more importance doubtless, however, to illustrate the use of time-periods to the idea of completeness. Ezekiel 39:9 provides an instance. There the completeness of the conquest of Israel over its enemies is expressed by saying that seven years shall be consumed in the burning up of the debris of battle: they ‘shall go forth,’ we read, ‘and shall make fires of the weapons and burn them, both the shields and the bucklers, the bows and the arrows, and the hand staves and the spears, and they shall make fires of them seven years.’ It were absurd to suppose that it is intended that the fires shall actually endure seven years. We have here only a hyperbole to indicate the greatness of the mass to be consumed and the completeness of the consumption. A somewhat similar employment of the time-phrase to express the idea of greatness is found in the twelfth verse of the same chapter, where, after the defeat of Gog ‘and all his multitude,’ it is said, ‘And seven months shall the children of Israel be in burying of them that they may cleanse the land.’ That is to say, the multitude of the dead is so great that by way of hyperbole their burial is said to consume seven months. The number seven employed by Ezekiel in these passages is replaced by the number a thousand in our present passage, with the effect of greatly enhancing the idea of greatness and completeness conveyed. When the saints are said to live and reign with Christ a thousand years the idea intended is that of inconceivable exaltation, security and blessedness beyond expression of ordinary language’ (Article, The Millennium and the Apocalypse, reprinted in Biblical Doctrines, p. 654).
Similarly Dr. Abraham Kuyper says: ‘The numbers and the indications of persons appearing in this book, are not actual numbers but figurative numbers. There were more than seven churches in Asia Minor. We are not to take the number 144,000 as if that was the number of a man, of those who were saved first. The 1600 furlongs of the stream of blood which reaches unto the bridles of the horses, is not a geographical designation. All these figures are to be understood symbolically’ (Article, Chiliasm or Premillennialism, p. 28).
That Calvin understood the ‘thousand years’ figuratively is clear beyond doubt. He dismisses the idea with one brief reference:
‘Not long after arose the millenarians, who limited the reign of Christ to a thousand years. Their fiction is too puerile to deserve refutation’ (Institutes, Book III; Ch. 25; Sec. 5).
We should point out, however, that in Revelation 20 the ‘thousand years’ of verses 1-3 and the ‘thousand years’ of verses 4-6 do not relate to the same thing. The Millennium of verses 1-3 relates to a period of the future on earth, during which time the Devil is bound so that he can no longer deceive the nations. The Millennium of verses 4-6, during which time the souls of ‘them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God’ are living and reigning with Christ, relates to the intermediate state, and for each individual soul it covers that period between death and the resurrection. That these ‘souls’ who are living and reigning with Christ are in the intermediate state is indicated: (1) by the fact that John saw them as ‘souls,’ not as people with bodies; (2) by the fact that they are contrasted with a second group, ‘the rest of the dead’ (verse 5), hence both groups must be identified with the dead — those who have died in the Lord, of which Revelation 14:13 speaks, and those who have died in their sins and who therefore have no part in the intermediate reign with Christ; and (3) by the contrast between the expression, ‘the first resurrection,’ and another figurative expression, ‘the second death’ (verse 14). No one understands this latter term literally as applying to a second physical death. It is commonly understood as referring to the eternal punishment of the wicked. Similarly, ‘the first resurrection’ is a figurative expression, and this event (life in the intermediate state) is so called in order to distinguish it from the resurrection of the body which occurs later. Some, however, understand ‘the first resurrection’ to refer to the regeneration of the soul, that is, to the new birth of the believer, which is followed by a period of sanctification in this life and is crowned by his being taken to heaven to reign with Christ during the period between death and the resurrection. In either case the ‘thousand years’ is to be understood symbolically as relating to an indefinitely long period of time. For the Old Testament saints and for those who died in the early part of the Christian era this reign has already continued much longer than a literal one thousand years.