I find people who mix their metaphors, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to be quite entertaining. And people do this more often than you might think. Ray Romano, the American actor best known for his work on the sitcom "Everybody Love Raymond" is reported to have said, "Your dirty laundry is coming home to roost." Is that because the chickens dirtied the laundry? Or how about the renowned English author Agatha Christie, who once penned these words: "One has to tidy up the loose ends." Isn't that, "Tie up the loose ends"? And then, leave it to a politician to really stick his foot in his mouth, as former vice president Al Gore did. Gore once quipped at a press conference, "We all know that a leopard can't change his stripes." And indeed that's true. Mainly because a leopard doesn't have any stripes. He has spots.
You would think that a writer as astute, observant, and careful as John would never commit such a cardinal literary sin like mixing his metaphors. But in Revelation 17, this is exactly what he does.
John sees a vision of a prostitute riding a beast who has emerged from the waters. This beast, John continues, has seven heads and ten horns (cf. verses 1-3). Now clearly, this language is to be interpreted metaphorically, as John himself later explains. He even "decodes," as it were, bits and pieces of his metaphorical language for us: "The seven heads of the beast are the seven hills on which the woman sits" (verse 9). So this woman is sitting on some sort of seven-hilled landscape. But then John continues, "They are also the seven kings" (verse 10). Wait! I thought the seven heads of the beast were supposed to symbolize seven hills. How can they also symbolize seven kings?
With such a labyrinth of imagery, it's no wonder that the book of Revelation can confuse and frustrate many. So let me see if I can help decipher some of John's metaphors, mixed as they may be. The prostitute seems to represent those once faithful followers of God who turn away from him in apostasy. Indeed, the sad image of a harlot is common imagery in the Old Testament for Israel, who regularly turns away from God to follow her own sinful desires. As the prophet Isaiah says, "See how the faithful city of Jerusalem has become a harlot! She was once full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her - but now murderers" (Isaiah 1:21)! The beast out of the sea on which this woman sits seems to symbolize the Roman Empire, especially since this beast's seven heads symbolize the "seven hills" (verse 9) on which Rome famously sits. The "seven kings," then, could very well be some of the wicked Roman emperors with whom John would have had to contend as he wrote Revelation. For John had been exiled by these same emperors to the remote island of Patmos because he stood up for his faith in Christ when these emperors demanded that all subjects of the empire worship them as gods. In the end, however, although these are my educated guesses as to what this imagery in Revelation 17 represents, they are still only my educated guesses. In other words, I cannot, in the final analysis, decipher every one of John's apocalyptic metaphors with precise specificity.
More than once, I have met a person who was convinced that he had every last one of the beasts, horns, kings, bowls, plagues, scrolls, and trumpets deciphered and decoded with the precise specificity that so stubbornly eludes me. And, oddly enough, all of these images from John's book just happened to correspond with the news stories he had read in the New York Times earlier that morning! "The end of the world is at hand," he would confidently, and even arrogantly, announce to me. Usually, I would respond with only a knowing glance. And then I would wait. Because while he was furiously readying himself for "apocalypse now," I just continued on with my daily activities, content to leave the Lord's return to the Lord. And eventually, the timetables he had placed on his predictions of doom and gloom expired. And he was proven wrong. Perhaps his precise specificity wasn't so precise after all.
One of the reasons I believe John mixes his metaphors is to try to prevent us from engaging in interpretations of his writings which would foolishly and haughtily seek to decipher his metaphors with precise specificity. For John's metaphors are not meant to be precise predictions, but general descriptions of the sad state of wickedness in the world and of the glorious promise of salvation with Christ. Sadly, this has not detoured many from their foolish, and so far completely wrongheaded, interpretations of John's visions.
I cannot interpret John's apocalyptic mixed metaphors specifically. I can only speak to them generally. And that's okay. I think John intended it that way. But this I do know and this I do believe with amazing specificity: That "the Lamb will overcome evil because he is Lord of lords and King of kings - and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers" (verse 14). No matter what may come of John's mixed metaphors, this I know: I will live eternally with the Lamb. And that makes me happy as an oyster. Or is that a clam?