Tag Archives: Classical and apocalyptic prophecy

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (27): The Broad Sweep of Christian History

Rev 12:12 makes the transition between the experience of Jesus, in his various symbolic representations, and the vision’s renewed focus on the woman back on earth. Her exile into the desert was introduced in 12:6 and now becomes the focus of the devil/dragon, who was angered by his casting out and by the knowledge that “his time is short.” In apocalyptic language this verse tells us that after Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the church took the brunt of Satan’s wrath on earth (Rev 12:13-16). Having been cast out of heaven, the dragon pursues the woman into the desert (12:13). The language of 12:13-16 is reminiscent of several accounts in the Old Testament, the vision of Daniel 7, the Exodus from Egypt, and the temptation and fall in the Garden of Eden.

The language of “a time, times and half a time” recalls Dan 7:25, as do the seven heads and the ten horns of the dragon who pursues the woman. In Daniel 7 the breakup of Rome into ten parts was followed by a little horn power, which was to persecute and “oppress God’s saints for a time, times and half a time.” (Dan 7:25) The only time in history that comes even close to matching this description is the Middle Ages, when the Roman Papacy dominated the Western world and drove competing views of Christianity into obscurity.

“The mouth of the serpent” (Rev 12:15) reminds the reader of the deceptive words of the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3). The flooding waters that attack the woman in the desert (the faithful church), therefore, imply deceptive and persuasive words as much as persecuting force. In the Middle Ages, unbiblical teachings were fed to the people in the name of Christ.

The woman fleeing into the desert on the two wings of a great eagle (Rev 12:14) reminds the reader of the Exodus experience, where God carried the tribes of Israel “on eagle’s wings” out of Egypt (Exod 19:4). So the experience of the woman, who represents the people of God, is built on the language of Old Testament Israel, both before and after the time of Christ. The experiences of Old Testament Israel and those of the Church are closely entwined in the book of Revelation.

In Rev 12:16 the “earth” helped the woman. This is a further allusion to the Exodus and Israel’s experience in the desert. The desert protected Israel from the “flooding waters” of both the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. If “sea” also represents the settled populations of the earth (as Rev 17:15 may suggest), “earth” here may represent more desolate places where the true people of God obtained refuge from deceptive and persecuting opponents; the Alps in Europe during the Middle Ages, and places like North America, South Africa, and Australia afterward. Toward the end of the 1260 years (the 16th through the 18th centuries) many forces came together to elevate the Bible and to end the persecution of God’s people; the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the beginnings of the great missionary expansion of the 19th century. During that period of calm, the dragon prepares for his final attack (Rev 12:17).

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (25): Revelation 12

A good reason to choose Revelation 12 as a sample passage for detecting apocalyptic is that it is widely seen as a center and key to the entire book. In addition, Adventists understand Revelation 12 to offer an apocalyptic prophecy of three sequential stages of Christian history. The first stage is the Christ-event back in the first century (Rev 12:1-5). The third is the final battle between the dragon and the Remnant (12:17). The second is the vast middle period of 1260 years of papal supremacy in the Middle Ages and beyond. Let’s take a careful look at the chapter in light of the previous work in this paper to see whether it best reflects the historicist sequences of apocalyptic prophecy, or whether it should be interpreted along the lines of classical prophecy.

First of all, chapter 12 does have a couple of the textual markers that indicate passage of time. In Rev 12:6 the woman is taken care of by God in the desert for 1260 days. In Rev 12:14 she is taken care of for a time, times and half a time, presumably the same period as 12:6. So Revelation 12 is not describing a single event, but a considerable period of time. This alone inclines an interpreter to see Rev 12 in apocalyptic terms rather than those of classical prophecy.

This impression is enhanced when the reader realizes that the cryptic phrase “a time, times, and half a time” (Rev 12:14) is unquestionably based on a couple of the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel (Dan 7:25; 12:7). Further study leads to the discovery that Rev 12 builds on Daniel throughout. The dragon of Rev 12:3-4 has a number of the characteristics of the beasts of Daniel 7 and of the little horn (Dan 7:7,24; 8:10). Among other things, if you total up the number of heads and horns among the four beasts of Dan 7 you get seven heads and ten horns. The war in heaven of 12:7-9 makes several allusions to Daniel (Dan 2:35; 10:13,20-21; 12:1). This broad utilization of Daniel’s apocalyptic prophecies enhances the impression that Rev 12 should be interpreted along similar lines.

Finally, Revelation 12 contains a number of character identifications with their typical time sequences. First, a woman appears in heaven, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (12:1). 12:1-2 is based on the Old Testament image of a virtuous woman as a symbol of faithful Israel (Isa 26:16-27; 54:5; 66:7-14; Hos 2:14-20), anticipating the arrival of the messianic age. So the woman of Rev 12 has a “pedigree” that carries back well into Old Testament prophecy. According to Isa 66:7, she is the faithful Israel that longed to give birth to the Lord’s salvation. But in verse 5 she acts in the context of the vision, giving birth to a male child who is generally recognized to be a symbol of Jesus. So her character and actions described in 12:1-2 are clearly prior to the actions in verses 5 and the actions of verse 5 are prior to the actions of verse 6. After she gives birth to the child (12:5) she is seen fleeing into the desert for a lengthy period (12:6). So the experience of the woman in Rev 12:1-6 is actually depicted in three stages; 1) the time of her appearance and pregnancy, 2) the time of giving birth, and 3) the time of fleeing into the desert.

The second character to be introduced in this chapter is the dragon (Rev 12:3-4), who represents the devil, or Satan (Rev 12:9). The dragon’s initial action in the context of the vision is described in 12:4, where he waits before the woman, seeking to devour her child as soon as it is born. Scholars widely recognize that the dragon’s attack on the male child in Rev 12:5 represents Herod’s attempt to destroy the Christ child by killing all the babies in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1-18). But the description of the dragon, as it was with the woman, carries back to a time before the events of the vision.

The dragon’s pedigree is seen in the heads and the horns of Daniel 7 (Rev 12:3), it is the embodiment of the kingdoms of the world in service of Satan. His pedigree, in fact, goes all the way back to Eden (“the old serpent”– Rev 12:9,15). And prior to his attack on the woman, his tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to earth (Rev 12:4), an allusion to Daniel 8:10.

But the dragon isn’t finished when the male child gets away in verse 5. The dragon pursues the woman into the desert (12:13-16) and eventually makes war with the remnant of her seed. So the dragon in chapter 12 is actually described in terms of four successive stages, 1) his attack on a third of the stars (12:4), 2) his attack on the male child (12:4-5), 3) his attack against the woman herself (12:13-16), and finally 4) his war against the remnant. The character and actions of both the woman and the dragon suggest the successive periods of a historical apocalypse.

The third character to be introduced in this chapter is the male child, the woman’s son. The scene is reminiscent of Gen 3:15, where the seed of the woman is the one who will crush the serpent’s head. This character introduction is unique in the sense that instead of describing a pedigree or prior action on the part of this male child, the introduction focuses instead on action beyond the time of the vision. Using the future tense, He is described as the one who “will rule (me,llei poimai,nein) all the nations with an iron scepter” (Rev 12:5). This allusion to Psalm 2:9 describes Jesus’ judgment role at the end of time. The very next phrase reverts to the visionary past, “her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.” In 12:5 reference is made, then, to the birth, the ascension, and the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ. The death of Christ on the cross is only brought into play in verses 10-12.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (24): Detecting Apocalyptic Sequences II

Old Testament Roots
When reading the Book of Revelation one is plunged fully into the atmosphere of the Old Testament. No book of the New Testament is as saturated with the Old as this one is. But while it is not difficult to recognize the central place of the Old Testament in the Book of Revelation, it is difficult to determine exactly how it is being used there. A reader acquainted with the Old Testament quickly notices that Revelation never directly quotes the Old Testament, rather it alludes to it with a word here, a phrase there, or a concept in another place. Careful and consistent application of method is essential to recognizing the Old Testament subtext to the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation. Such a method is laid out in the report from the Daniel and Revelation Committee in the early 90s.

The importance of the Old Testament in Revelation can be seen by a second look at the character introduction passages examined above. The vision in which Jesus is physically introduced to the reader (Rev 1:12-16) is based on a variety of Old Testament texts. The golden lampstands are a reminder of the lampstand in the Old Testament sanctuary (Exod 25:31-40) and the vision of Zechariah (Zech 4:2,10). Jesus’ dress recalls the dress of the High Priest in the same sanctuary (Exod 28:4,31). The voice like rushing waters reminds the reader of the appearance of Almighty God in the book of Ezekiel (Ezek 1:24; 43:2). The two-edged sword coming from Jesus’ mouth is reminiscent of Yahweh’s judgments through His messianic Servant in Isaiah (Isa 11:4; 49:2). The reader’s appreciation and understanding of Revelation’s apocalyptic-style symbolism is greatly enhanced by following up a veritable mosaic of Old Testament allusions.

But what ties all these Old Testament allusions together is a comprehensive utilization of the descriptions of two characters in the book of Daniel, the Son of Man of Dan 7:13-14 and Daniel’s mysterious visitor in 10:5-6. Virtually every detail of the description in 1:12-16 is found in those two passages. The same Jesus who walked and talked with ordinary people here on earth is described in terms of the mighty acts of Yahweh and of His heavenly and earthly messengers in the Old Testament. The parallels to the Old Testament lend much meaning to what otherwise would be a bewildering and incomprehensible description. So Jesus is depicted in this introduction as a heavenly priest, cosmic ruler, and divine judge. In 1:17-18 he exercises his priesthood in his merciful gentleness to John, 1:19-20 makes clear that his royal rule will be exercised in judgment, both positive and negative, toward the churches. And this marvelous passage right at the beginning of the book of Revelation emphasizes its strong ties to the apocalyptic book of Daniel.

The description of the two witnesses (Rev 11:3-6), on the other hand, is based on the lampstand passage of Zechariah (Zech 4:2-3,11-14), and also the exploits of Moses and Elijah in the Old Testament (cf. Exod 7:17-21; 1 Kings 17:1; 2 Kings 1:10-12). The two witnesses are prophets like the great prophets of the Old Testament; Moses, Elijah and Zechariah. But the prophets in Revelation all bear witness to Jesus (Rev 1:9; 2:13; 12:11,17; 17:6). The richness of these background narratives is crucial to understanding what John was trying to say in writing the visions out as he did. So careful attention to the Old Testament becomes a crucial part of the process by which apocalyptic prophecies need to be understood.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (22): The Adventist Approach to Revelation II

While the early critical consensus was that the book of Revelation was primarily apocalyptic, that consensus has been seriously challenged. Some scholarly discussions of Revelation’s genre suggest that it is more prophetic than apocalyptic, others suggests a “prophetic-apocalyptic” genre, still others highlight the epistolary aspect of the book. What is clear is that the genre of Revelation is a mixed genre whose character cannot be determined with exactness. Typical of more recent discussion is the eclectic approach of G. K. Beale, Revelation, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998). When it comes to the book of Daniel, historicism as a method is not at issue, it is simply a question of whether to interpret along the lines of predictive prophecy or ex eventu prophecy. With Revelation, on the other hand, the appropriateness of historicist method is much less obvious.

Most Seventh-day Adventists have not yet felt the force of this difficulty. We inherited a historicist approach to Revelation from our Protestant forebears in the middle of the 19th Century. We have assumed that approach to be the correct one, but have never demonstrated it from the text. This came clearly into focus for me in the context of the Adventist conversations with the Lutheran World Federation. It was clear that the Lutherans had a hard time understanding the Adventist approach to Daniel and Revelation. When it came time to write the Adventist response, the committee decided that scholarly justification for a historicist method in Revelation was needed. But when I asked where in the Adventist literature such a justification could be found, few had any idea.

My own subsequent search turned up only one Adventist argument for a historicist approach to Revelation (by Roy Naden). It goes something like this. The book of Daniel clearly exhibits a series of historical events running from the prophet’s time to the end. The Book of Revelation quotes Daniel and is similar in style to Daniel, therefore, the seven-fold series of Revelation are also to be understood as historical series running from the time of the prophet until the end. This argument by itself is not satisfactory.

In a Lutheran-Adventist joint publication I added a further argument from the evidence of Jewish apocalyptic. I suggested that the historical time periods of ex eventu prophecy reflected the conviction that a genuine prophet such as Enoch, Moses, or Ezra would be capable of outlining history in advance. Since John, the author of Revelation, believed that the prophetic spirit had returned (Rev 1:3; 19:9-10; 22:6-10), he would have every reason to believe that the cosmic Christ could reveal to him the general outline of events between the advents. The return of genuine prophets would signal the return of predictive prophecy.

Should John’s prophecies be understood more in terms of the classical prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah or more like the apocalyptic prophet Daniel? Do the symbolic visions retain some of the epistolary nature of the early chapters? In the Daniel and Revelation Committee session that was held at Newbold College in England in 1988, considerable discussion was given to this issue. A developing consensus seemed to be that the churches, seals and trumpets of Rev 1-11 respectively exhibited the characteristics of the three main genre types found in the book of Revelation. Careful analysis suggests that the seven letters portion of the book (Rev 2-3) reads most naturally along the lines of the New Testament epistles, the seven seals (Rev 6-7) bear the character of classical prophecy, along the lines of Matt 24, and the seven trumpets (Rev 8-11) are the most apocalyptic in nature.

Given the mixed picture of Revelation’s genre this should be evaluated on a case by case basis. An example of such an evaluation is given in the following blogs on Revelation 12. No passage in Revelation is more critical to Adventist self-understanding than Rev 12-13. I will, therefore, examine one of these chapters for evidence of whether it reflects the historical sequencing of an apocalyptic series or exhibits the characteristics of classical prophecy. We will try to determine on the basis of exegetical analysis whether the apocalyptic reading of traditional Adventism is appropriate to Rev 12.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (21): The Adventist Approach to Revelation

A problem that previous Adventist discussions have not adequately addressed is the relationship of Revelation to the larger genre of apocalyptic prophecy. It is been largely assumed that Revelation is of the same character as that of Daniel (apocalyptic prophecy) and that its visions are, therefore, to be uniformly interpreted as unconditional prophetic portrayals of the sequence of both Christian and general history from the time of Jesus to the end of the world. This assumption has not, however, been found compelling by specialists in the field.

The Daniel and Revelation Committee of the General Conference (1981-1991) gradually shifted on this point as we looked at the evidence of Revelation from 1986 through 1991. In a volume published just before I joined in the Committee (1986), William Johnsson, in his article on the nature of prophecy (DARCOM, vol. 3, 282) provided only two paragraphs on Revelation (282). He states there that Revelation concerns things which “shall be hereafter” rather than just “may be” (Rev 1:19). The book portrays how God will bring an end to the world order, rescue His people and produce a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells. These statements suggest the thinking that at least parts of Revelation, and probably the whole, are certainly apocalyptic in nature.

Kenneth Strand went much further in this direction. He states (published in 1992) without argument that Revelation, along with Daniel, is generally classified as apocalyptic prophecy in contrast to “classical prophecy.” He then goes on to list the characteristics of apocalyptic prophecy. Kenneth A. Stand, “Foundational Principles of Interpretation,” 11-19. Strand does soften this assertion somewhat on page 22, however. He notes the epistolary nature of the seven letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3, giving Revelation “a certain flavor of exhortation,” an element of conditionality. He limits this exhortatory character of Revelation, however, to the seven letters and to occasional appeals and does not apply its conditionality to the prophetic forecasts of Revelation.

My own work in the same volume (1992) states that Revelation is both prophetic and apocalyptic, but I don’t address the implications of that distinction. Jon Paulien, “Interpreting Revelation’s Symbolism,” in Symposium on Revelation– Book I, edited by Frank B. Holbrook, Daniel and Revelation Committee Series, vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), 78-79. One reason for this mild contradiction is that DARCOM was disbanded in 1991 at a time when General Conference committees were being downsized, and was never able to complete its work. Strand’s opening articles were added later, being a compendium of his earlier work, but were never seriously discussed in the committee. I don’t know whether the publication of these chapters represented the editor’s attempt to counter my thesis or simply to fill out things the Committee never got to, with the contradiction not noticed.

As was the case with historical versus mystical apocalypses, Revelation seems to smoothly blend characteristics of both general and apocalyptic prophecy. It is written to a specific time and place and the audience is clearly local and contemporary (Rev 1:1-4, 10-11, 2:1 – 3:22). Revelation 22:16 clearly states that the entire book was intended as a message to the churches. Its message was intended to be understood by the original audience (Rev 1:3). It is not, therefore, simply a replay of the genre of Daniel, where there are texts that postpone understanding: Dan 8:27; 12:4, 13. On the other hand, the break between the old order and the new is radical and complete, just like that of Jewish apocalyptic (Rev 20:11 – 21:5). Prophetic action along a continuum can also be seen in passages like Rev 12 and in 17:10. So the genre of Revelation is not nearly as cut and dried as seems to be the case with Daniel.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (20): The Adventist Approach to Daniel IV

The little horn power of Daniel 7, however, is not separate from the fourth beast. It arises directly from among the ten horns that are part of the fourth beast (Dan 7:7: “It had ten horns”). This point is underlined again in Dan 7:19-20, where Daniel says, “Then I wanted to know the true meaning of the fourth beast, . . I also wanted to know about the ten horns on its head and about the other horn that came up. . .” But while rooted in the fourth beast, the little horn comes up after the ten horns which themselves come up after the fourth kingdom is established (Dan 7:24). So there is a sequencing taking place in relation to the imagery of the fourth beast. Since the little horn arises after the fourth kingdom and in the context of the ten horns it would seem to be operating in the time of the divided kingdom of Daniel 2. Just as the mixed kingdom of iron and clay was connected to the fourth by the image of iron (Dan 2:41-42), so the little horn is connected to the fourth kingdom, having grown from its symbolic head (Dan 7:8).

Doukhan brings out further parallels between the little horn of Daniel 7 and the clay of Daniel 2. Clay is quite different from the series of metals (Dan 2:32), the little horn is explicitly different (Dan 7:24) from the kingdoms that preceded it. Both have human features. The little horn is singled out because it has human eyes and a talking mouth (7:8), the clay is an allusion to the creation of Adam. In Daniel reference to human nature can be understood to portray the religious character of a person or institution (compare 7:4 with 4:16,34,36). The religious character of the little horn becomes explicit in the explanation (Dan 7: 21,25). While both entities are religious in character, they are also able to adapt to the world of politics. The clay is mixed with the iron (Dan 2:41-43) and the little horn is a horn (symbol of political power) and grows out of the fourth kingdom (7:7-8). So the little horn would seem to be portraying the same ambiguous power that was represented by the clay in chapter 2.

The description of the little horn exhibits the following characteristics and actions. 1) It speaks boastfully (Dan 7:8, 20), 2) it wages war against the saints and defeats them (7:21), 3) it is different in character from the earlier kings, which were political in nature (7:24). 4) The boastful speaking is interpreted in verse 25 as speaking “against the Most High.” 5) The war against the saints is redefined as “oppressing the saints” (7:25). 6) He will “try to change the set times and the laws,” something only God is supposed to do (Dan 2:21), and 7) the period during which he will dominate the saints is said to last for “a time, times and half a time” (7:25). To use the language of John J. Collins, the offenses of the little horn are “blasphemy, violence, and religious innovation.” There has been a long-standing consensus within Adventist scholarship that the four major kingdoms of Daniel 2 and 7 represent Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. There has been a similar consensus that the little horn power of Daniel represents the medieval papacy, which was different in character from the secular powers of the earth, persecuted the saints, made changes in the ten commandments, particularly the Sabbath, and dominated Western Europe for more than a thousand years.

The two new elements of the chapter are tied together in 7:8-11 and 21-22. It is interesting to note that the vision of 7:2-14 is divided into three parts by the stylistic expression, “In my vision at night I looked”, found in verses 2, 7 and 13. Surprisingly, this arrangement ties the fourth kingdom more closely to the heavenly court scene than to the three kingdoms that precede it in verses 4-6. The immediate context of the seating of the heavenly judgment in 7:9-14 is the little horn’s boastful speaking in verse 8. The absence in verse 9 of the typical sequencing term (“behold”) found seven times in the vision (Dan 7:5,6,7,8 [twice], 13) is further evidence that the judgment begins at precisely that point in history where the little horn is doing its human thing and speaking boastfully (elaborated in 7:21,25).

A portion of the vision formula of 2, 7 and 13 is also found at the conclusion of verse 11, further tying the descriptions of verses 7 and 8 with the opening of the judgment in 9 and 10. The allusion to the destruction of the beast that carried the little horn in verse 11 implies that the judgment comes into session to deal with the actions of that beast, and of the ten horns and the little horn that followed it in the course of history. This implication is confirmed in Dan 7:21-22. The time, times and half a time in which the saints are oppressed lasts “until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High” (7:22). So the judgment comes at the end of the little horn’s time of oppressing the saints. The end result of that judgment is “His power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His (the son of man of 7:13-14) kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him” (Dan 7:26-27).

So the vision of Daniel 7 is not so much adding new elements to the earlier vision as it is elaborating on the later stages of it, the times after the fourth kingdom and before the setting up of God’s eternal kingdom. During the time of the divided kingdom of iron and clay, an oppressive power, described as a little horn on the beast of the fourth kingdom, will arise and oppress the people of God, just as Babylon was doing in Daniel’s day. Daniel 7 also adds that ushering in the stone kingdom will be a heavenly tribunal in which the actions of all the oppressive powers of history will be brought to an end and the people of God will join God’s representative, the son of man, in an everlasting kingdom where all obey the Most High God.

In Daniel 2 and 7, therefore, we have a pair of apocalyptic prophecies which review the same basic historical sequence, running from the time of the respective prophets until the establishment of God’s kingdom at the end of history. The exegesis is relatively straightforward, when the two visions are viewed together. The only reason to question elements of this scenario are if these prophecies were not written ahead of events, but were the result of pious history after the fact, written around 165 BC. So for Adventist scholarship, the decisive issue with regard to the hermeneutics of the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel is the time when the book was written. For those who believe that Daniel was a genuine prophecy of the sixth century BC, the process is straightforward. First, give careful attention to what the text is actually saying and what it is not saying. Second, give careful attention to the clear witness of history, and align the text with that history to the best of one’s ability.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (4): The Exegetical Imperative

The special nature of apocalyptic prophecy raises a separate issue. A generally accepted principle of biblical interpretation is that God meets people where they are. In other words, Scripture was given in the time, place, language, and culture of specific human beings. The knowledge, experience, and background of the Biblical writers was respected. Paul, with his “Ph.D.”, expresses God’s revelation to him in a different way than does Peter, the fisherman. John writes in simple, clear, almost childlike Greek. On the other hand, the author of Hebrews has the most complex and literary Greek in all the New Testament with the exception of the first four verses of Luke. In Matthew, you have someone who understands the Jewish mind. Mark, on the other hand, reaches out to the Gentile mind. So the revelations recorded in the Bible were given in a way comprehensible to each audience.

This point was driven home with great power a few decades ago. In the nineteenth century, New Testament Greek was thought to be unique. It was quite different from both the classical Greek of Plato and Aristotle and the Greek spoken today. Some scholars thought that the New Testament had been given in some special kind of Greek, perhaps a “heavenly language.” Then someone stumbled across an ancient garbage dump in Egypt. It was filled with the remnants of love letters, bills, receipts, and other products of everyday life in the first century. To the shock of many, these papyrus fragments were written in the same language and style as the books of the New Testament! The New Testament was not written in a heavenly language, nor in the cultured language of the traditional elite, but in the everyday language of everyday people. God meets people where they are! The Sacred Word was expressed through the cultural frailty of human beings.

This principle is clearly articulated in Selected Messages, Volume 1, 19-22:
“The writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language. It was written by human men. These men were inspired of the Holy Spirit. . . .
“The Scriptures were given to men, not in a continuous chain of unbroken utterances, but piece by piece through successive generations, as God in His providence saw a fitting opportunity to impress man at sundry times and divers places. . . .
“The Bible, perfect as it is in its simplicity, does not answer to the great ideas of God; for infinite ideas cannot be perfectly embodied in finite vehicles of thought.”

In affirming this principle we do not fall into the trap of treating the Bible as if it were merely exalted human conceptions of God. The richness of the human elements in the Bible are not a liability, they are part of God’s intentional design for His Word. God has chosen to reveal Himself in this way for our sakes. At some points in the Bible the human elements of expression reflect the personality and style of the human author, seeking to express God’s revelation in the best possible human language. But at many points in the Scriptural narrative, it is God Himself who bends down and takes onto His own lips the limitations of human language and cultural patterns for our sakes. There is, perhaps, no clearer illustration of this than the Ten Commandments, which come directly from the mouth of God (Exod 20:1-19), yet include significant elements of the cultural milieu within which they were received (including slavery, idolatry, and neighbors who possess oxen and donkeys). Clearly this aspect of the nature of God’s revelation has implications for hermeneutics.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (3): General and Apocalyptic Prophecy

In reaction to the work of Desmond Ford, an earlier generation of Seventh-day Adventist scholars sought to distinguish 1) general prophecy, represented by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and others, and 2) apocalyptic prophecy, represented by Daniel and Revelation. General prophecy, sometimes called “classical prophecy,” was seen to focus primarily on the prophet’s own time and place, but would occasionally offer a glimpse forward to a cosmic “Day of the Lord” leading to a new heaven and a new earth. Apocalyptic prophecy, on the other hand, was seen to focus on history as a divinely-guided continuum leading up to and including the final events of earth’s history. Such prophecies are generally unconditional, being grounded in God’s over-arching purpose for history more than in the human response to that history. General prophecy focuses on the immediate situation of the prophet, while apocalyptic prophecy has more of a long-range view.

Because of its dual dimension, general prophecy may at times be susceptible to dual fulfillment or foci where local and contemporary perspectives may be mixed with a universal, future perspective. Apocalyptic prophecy, on the other hand, does not deal so much with the local, contemporary situation as it does with the whole span of future history, including the major saving acts of God within that history. The greater focus of general prophecy is on contemporary events, the greater focus of apocalyptic prophecy is on end-time events. While general prophecy describes the future in the context of the prophet’s local situation, apocalyptic prophecy portrays a comprehensive historical continuum that is under God’s control and leads from the prophet’s time all the way down to the End.

General prophecies, which are written to affect human response, tend to be conditional upon the reactions of peoples and nations (Jer 18:7-10; Jonah; Deuteronomy 28). On the other hand, apocalyptic prophecies, particularly those of Daniel and Revelation, tend to be unconditional, reflecting God’s foreknowledge of His ultimate victory and the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Apocalyptic prophecy portrays the inevitability of God’s sovereign purpose. No matter what the evil powers do, God will accomplish His purpose in history. A key interpretive principle, then, is to determine which Biblical prophecies are general in nature and which are apocalyptic. When the genre has been determined, the appropriate approach can be taken.

The major hermeneutical implication of this determination has to do with the time and frequency of fulfillment. An apocalyptic time sequence, by its very nature, is limited to a single fulfillment. Daniel 2 for example, whose meaning is fairly clear, covers the entire span from Daniel’s time until the End. It is not, therefore, readily given dual or multiple fulfillments. A classical prophecy such as Joel 2:28-32 (or the Day of the Lord concept in general) may readily be applied to the original situation as well as to similar situations in the future.