I like to understand things. I care about truth, and about accuracy; usually they coincide.
With these chapters, I find that I like not being sure exactly what John is talking about.
That’s not strictly accurate; I’m pretty sure that he’s writing about Rome, and so about the emperors of his day and those soon to come. I think the plagues probably relate to things that his readers will remember or expect. But the fact that Revelation stands as it is in Scripture, without an accompanying interpreter’s key, means that we can read it as relevant to our day or to any time.
Perhaps the reason that people are forever finding references to their own day in the symbolic events of Revelation isn’t just that the symbolism is so strange and rich that it can be interpreted in a thousand different ways; though I’m sure that’s part of the reason. More deeply, this kind of stuff keeps happening. A series of oppressive rulers isn’t a one-off event in human history; it keeps happening, and the good news is that in the end the beast loses. Again and again. And one day it will lose forever.
So the whole book of Revelation, read this way, takes the whole sweep of the story so far and makes it universal – not just for all people but for all of human history. That’s why people can always see the events of their own day in its images; that’s the point. This isn’t about some single point in future history. It’s about a thousand yesterday’s, todays and tomorrows, in which God and God’s people struggle against evil – and finally win.