We know that Revelation uses symbols because it is a prophecy (Rev. 1:3) following on from Daniel’s prophecies in Dan. 2, 7 and 8.
In Dan. 2, 7 and 8 prophecies are given that use symbols — Dan. 2: a statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay (which is crushed by a rock); Dan. 7: all sorts of made up animals; Dan. 8; a ram and a goat — to refer to nations (Dan. 2:37ff.; 7:17; 8:20-21). Revelation is also a prophecy, and it uses similar language to Daniel’s (and Daniel’s language is explicitly defined as symbolic, non-literal). If these were the only connections between these two prophetic books, we could safely say that, due to the similarities with Daniel, the language in Revelation is also symbolic, non-literal. However, there are closer ties between the two books that demonstrate this even further.
Revelation picks up on the actual symbols that Daniel uses first. Some of the ways Revelation uses the symbols from Daniel can be seen in the following table:
|And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. [v3]||And I saw a beast rising out of the sea… [v1]|
|After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard… [v6]||And the beast that I saw was like a leopard… [v2]|
|And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear.…[v5]||And the beast that I saw…its feet were like a bear’s… [v2]|
|The first was like a lion… [v4]||And the beast that I saw…its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.… [v2]|
|a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong.… It was different from all the beasts… [v7]||…to [the other beast] the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. [v2]|
|The first was like a lion…another beast, a second one, like a bear…another, like a leopard…had four heads…a fourth beast… [v4-7]||And I saw a beast rising out of the sea…seven heads… [v1]|
|He shall speak words against the Most High… [v25]||And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words…It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. [v5-6]|
|…they shall be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time. [v25]||……and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. [v5]|
|As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them…He…shall wear out the saints of the Most High…and they shall be given into his hand.… [v21,25]||…Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.… [v7]|
As we can see, Revelation is a continuation of the prophecies in Daniel. The beasts in Daniel match up with the ones in Revelation. The fourth beast in Daniel 7 corresponds with the dragon in Revelation — as the fourth beast in Daniel (v7-8,11) is a symbol for a ‘kingdom’ (Dan. 7:17,23), so the dragon in Revelation likewise is not literal, but represents a group of people.