Take, for example, the fifth bowl plague:
Rev 16:10 Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl
on the throne of the beast,
and his kingdom became darkened;
and they gnawed their tongues because of pain,
11 and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains
… and they did not repent of their deeds.
A literal interpretation might be that a literal chemical is poured on a literal throne resulting in literal darkness in a literal kingdom. However:
The beast receives its throne from the Roman Empire. It is therefore not a literal throne (See, the throne of the beast is religious authority.)
The kingdom must similarly be symbolic because all the peoples of the world worship it (Revelation 13:3, 4)This means that the Beast’s kingdom is world-wide.
One criticism often levied against symbolic interpretations is that there are so many different symbolic interpretations that most (all?) of them must be wrong. It is true that most symbolic interpretations are wrong, but then a literal interpretation is ALWAYS wrong.
Some people assume that, in Revelation, something is literal unless it cannot be literal. In Revelation, this cannot be a valid hermeneutic, for there are just too many things in Revelation that must be symbolic. To mention a few examples of things coming OUT OF MOUTHS:
Fire and smoke and brimstone coming out of the mouths of 200 million horses (9:18);
Fire flowing from the mouths of God’s witnesses (11:5);
A flood of water pouring out of the mouth of the Dragon (12:15);
Frogs coming out of the mouths of the Dragon, Beast and False prophets (16:13); and
A sword coming out of the mouth of Him who sits on a white horse (19:15).
In a book where symbols are just everywhere, it is not valid to assume something is literal unless it cannot be literal. The context must be allowed to determine whether something is literal or symbolic, without the interpreter trying to apply some preconceived rule.
Another criticism against symbolic interpretations is that such interpretations are only limited by the interpreter’s imagination. This is not true. It is agreed that purely creative interpretations cannot be correct. Symbolic interpretations must be based on a detailed comparison of Scripture with Scripture, allowing Scripture to interpret itself. This does not guarantee a correct interpretation, often because interpreters come to the text with different a priori assumptions.
A criticism against literal interpretations is that it does not ask what something means. It therefore often fails to grasp the real meaning and therefore fails to benefit from the message in the text.
For example, a literal interpretation does not ask what the throne of the Beast is, and therefore often explains the end-time conflict as military in nature, which is inconsistent with the general message of the Bible. The war on earth is a continuation of the war in heaven (12:7). It revolves around much bigger issues than simply who is physically the strongest. Jesus overcame by being a lamb (5:6). He asked: “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mat 26:53) Similarly, the war we are is not merely physical. God has all power in the universe, but that is not the point.