Tag Archives: Interpreting biblical apocalyptic

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (6): Hermeneutical Keys

There are a number of hermeneutical keys that are suggested by a comparison of Daniel 2 and Daniel 7.

1) God speaks to each of His human emissaries in the context of their own time, place, and circumstances. He speaks in language they can understand and appreciate, even when He speaks in apocalyptic terms. He uses the language of the prophet’s past to paint a picture of the prophet’s future. God meets people where they are. This has hermeneutical implications. It means that in our study of apocalyptic literature, it is imperative that we seek to understand it in terms of the original time, place, language, and circumstances, as well as the content of the whole of Scripture. We should not expect to find God’s meaning for the text in some context outside that of the original revelation. God’s meaning for today will not contradict the message that He placed in the vision in the first place.

2) The purpose of apocalyptic visions is not simply to satisfy human curiosity about the future (although that may have played a role in the first instance, according to Dan 2:29). It is a message about the character and the workings of God. God is not only communicating something about the future course of history, He is revealing Himself as the One who is in control of that history. To study apocalyptic only as a key to unlock the future is to miss its message about a God who seeks to be known by His people. From a Christian perspective, apocalyptic is never rightly understood unless its central focus is on the “son of man,” Jesus Christ.

3) Apocalyptic is people-oriented. In conforming to the principle of “God meets people where they are,” it is evident that the purpose of apocalyptic is to comfort and instruct the people of God on earth. God offers a powerful message of both hope and warning to the original recipients of each message, and that message of hope and warning has a repeated application to every reader of these visions throughout history. Whether or not the forecast of history has always been rightly understood, God’s appeal to the human recipients of His revelation is ever fresh.

4) While in Daniel 2 and 7 the issue of God’s control over history is front row and center, it is important to see how that control is exercised in the larger sweep of the Bible. As a God of love, God initiates, encourages and respects the freedom of His creatures. The cross demonstrates that God does not exercise control through overwhelming power and dominance, but through demonstration of His character and persuasion. In Daniel 7 human exercise of power is portrayed in terms of vicious, carnivorous beasts that trample and destroy. In contrast, God rules by kindness (Rom 2:4) and self-sacrifice (Rev 5:6). God prefers to exercise His authority with gentleness and patience rather than intimidation and force.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (5): Visions Meet People Where They Are

The crucial question for prophetic interpretation is whether the general biblical principle of “God meets people where they are” is applicable to apocalyptic prophecies such as Daniel and Revelation. If so, how does it affect our interpretation of these prophecies? I believe it will be helpful to our purpose to notice that God at times even adjusted the form of apocalyptic visions in order to more effectively communicate to the inspired prophet. The most striking example is in the book of Daniel. There visions of similar content were given to two people from completely different backgrounds.

Many Adventists have tended to distinguish between the visionary experiences of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel. They say that the pagan king had a dream in Daniel 2 but that Daniel himself had a vision in Daniel 7. This distinction is not, however, warranted by the biblical text. Unusual wording in two passages, Dan 2:28 and 7:1, while often overlooked by commentators as of little interest, reveals that the experience of the two “prophets” was the same. In Dan 2:28 Nebuchadnezzar is told, “Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you lay on your bed are these” (NIV). In Dan 7:1 we are told, “Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed (NIV).” The underlying Aramaic is essentially identical with that of Dan 2:28. In both cases, God chose to reveal Himself in visionary form, He was in full control of the revelation.

Not only is the mode of revelation essentially the same, but the content of the two visions, when interpreted, is essentially the same. In Dan 2 the vision begins with the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon), traces three kingdoms that will follow, and eventuates in the kingdom that the God of heaven will set up and which will never be destroyed (Dan 2:36-45). In Dan 7 we again have a series of four kingdoms, with the first representing Babylon (Dan 7:4,17), and again the interpretation eventuates in the everlasting kingdom of the Most High (Dan 7:26-27). To Nebuchadnezzar, the heathen king, God portrays the future world empires by means of an idol. The term translated “statue” or “image” is frequently used in connection with idolatry in the Old Testament (2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chron 23:17; Amos 5:26, etc.). That this meaning is to be understood here is clear from Daniel 3. There Nebuchadnezzar recognized exactly what to do with such an object! Nebuchadnezzar could appreciate God’s use of this cultural concept, since he saw the nations of the world as bright and shining counterparts of the gods that they worshiped.

God here chooses to use cultural expressions with which Nebuchadnezzar was familiar, and those concepts lent themselves to the point God was trying to make to him. God’s point in the vision was that He was the source of Nebuchadnezzar’s power and position (Dan 2:37-38), that He is in full control of all kingdoms of the earth (and their gods) and places them under the control of whomever He wishes (Dan 4:17). But Nebuchadnezzar was not to understand this point until his second vision (4:5, 34-37). In chapter 2 Nebuchadnezzar accepts that God is a revealer of mysteries (Dan 2:47), but his reworking of the idol into one totally of gold shows his unwillingness to submit to God’s control of history at this point in time.

For Daniel, on the other hand, the nations of the world were like vicious, ravenous beasts who were hurting his people (chapter 7). God again draws on the prophet’s knowledge and setting as He shapes the vision He gives to Daniel. This time, instead of symbolism drawn from the Babylonian world, He shapes the vision as a midrash on the creation story of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. God describes Daniel’s future in terms of a new creation.

“Daniel said, ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea’”(Dan 7:2). The concept of winds stirring up the sea is reminiscent of Gen 1:2, where the wind/spirit moves upon the waters of the great deep. As in the original creation, beasts then appear (Dan 7:3ff., cf. Gen 1:24-25; 2:19). In each story the appearance of the beasts is followed by the appearance of a “son of man,” who is given dominion over the beasts (Gen 1:26-28; 2:19-20, cf. Dan 7:13-14). What we have in this vision is an early example of “second Adam” typology, in which an end-time Adam figure takes possession of God’s kingdom in behalf of His people (Dan 7:13-14, cf. 7:27).

What message was God seeking to communicate to Daniel and his fellow exiles in Babylon? I believe it was the same basic message that God sought to communicate to Nebuchadnezzar. God is the One who is in control of history and of all the affairs of nations. To Daniel and his fellow exiles, things seemed out of control. The Godless nations flaunted their dominion (see Dan 7:6,12, which use the same word for “dominion” as Dan 7:14, 26-27) like carnivorous beasts ravaging a flock. To Daniel in Babylon, the message of Dan 7 was a great comfort: just as Adam had dominion over the beasts in the Garden of Eden, so the Son of Man, when he comes, will have dominion over these nations that are hurting your people. God is in control even when things seem out of control. He is the one who sets up kings and removes them.

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.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (2): Apocalyptic Thinking

Some scholars believe that the historical type of apocalyptic thinking (like Daniel 2 and 7) began with Zoroaster, a pagan priest of Persia, but the relevant Persian documents are quite late and may be dependant on Jewish works rather than the other way around. It is more likely that the “dawn of apocalyptic” can be traced to the prophetic works of the Old Testament, like Isaiah 24-27, 65-66, Daniel, Joel and Zechariah. When the prophetic spirit ceased in the Persian period (5th to 4th century BC), pseudonymity (a later writer adopting the name of an earlier, more famous one) became a way that uninspired writers sought to recapture the spirit of the ancient prophets and write out what those ancient prophets might have written had they been alive to see the apocalyptist’s day.

Apocalyptic writers believed that this world order is evil and oppressive, and under the control of Satan and his human accomplices. It would shortly be destroyed by God and replaced with a new and perfect order corresponding to Eden. The final events of the old order would involve severe conflict between the old order and the people of God, but the final outcome is never in question. Through a mighty act of judgment, God condemns the wicked, rewards the righteous and re-creates the universe.

The apocalyptic world view, therefore, tends to view reality from the perspective of God’s overarching control of history, which is divided into a series of segments or eras. It expresses these beliefs in terms of the themes and images of ancient apocalyptic literature. Although this world view can be expressed through other genres of literature, its fundamental shape is most clearly discerned in apocalypses.

While the same scholars who have created such helpful definitions may think of people who hold such beliefs today to be out of touch with contemporary reality, Seventh-day Adventists will recognize that their fundamental beliefs are decisively grounded in ancient apocalypticism. In other words, for Adventists the books of Daniel and Revelation are not marginal works appropriate to occasional Saturday night entertainment, they are foundational to the Adventist world view and its concept of God. Daniel and Revelation provide the basic hermeneutical grid from which Adventists read the rest of the Bible. For Adventists to reject this world view would be to inaugurate a fundamental shift in Adventist thinking.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic: Defining Terms

As we all struggle with the consequences of COVID-19, many people want to know what the Bible in general, and biblical prophecy in particular, may offer that can guide us in these challenging times. So I decided to offer a series of reflections on the issue of interpreting biblical apocalyptic; the genre of literature to which the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation belong. I have addressed this topic at a scholarly level for nearly forty years now, but my purpose is to keep the blogs readable for the general audience.

John J. Collins of Yale University, whom I count as a friend, has worked with a team of scholars for some fifty years now on how to define “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic.” (Among his many works, I recommend the following as a first read on this topic: The Apocalyptic Imagination, third edition, Eerdmans, 2016.) The term “apocalypse” is drawn from the introductory phrase of the biblical book of Revelation (Rev 1:1) and means “revelation” or “disclosure.” From the second century AD onward, it became increasingly used as a term for extra-biblical works of a character similar to Revelation. So modern scholars are not out of line in applying the label “apocalyptic” to a whole collection of similar works existed in ancient Judaism, such as Daniel, Ethiopic Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and other works produced before and contemporary with Revelation.

Collins’ team of scholars analyzed all such texts from 250 BC through 250 AD and developed a definition based on their common characteristics. The definition they developed was published in Semeia 14 in 1979 and remains the scholarly consensus to this day: “An apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”

As I understand this definition, an apocalyptic work like Daniel or Revelation is revelatory literature, which means it claims to communicate information from God to humanity. This is accomplished in the form of a story, a “narrative framework.” The revelation is communicated to a human being by “otherworldly beings” such as angels or the 24 elders of Revelation. The revelation discloses “transcendent reality,” that which is beyond the ability of our five sense to apprehend, about the course of history leading up the God’s salvation at the End, and about the heavenly, “supernatural” world.

While not present in the above definition of apocalypse, scholars also distinguish between two types of apocalyptic literature, the historical and the mystical. The historical type, characteristic of Daniel, gives an overview of a large sweep of history, often divided into periods, and climaxing with a prediction about the end of history and the final judgment. The mystical type of apocalypse describes the ascent of the visionary through the heavens, which are often numbered. While one might be tempted to view these two types of apocalypses as distinct genres, several ancient writings, including the book of Revelation, mix elements of both types in one literary work. For Seventh-day Adventists, the historical type has been of primary interest.