In the Jewish apocalyptic tradition (represented in the Bible particularly by Daniel and Revelation), there is an important distinction between visions and explanations. In a vision, the prophet can travel anywhere in the universe and to any point of time, all the way to the end of the world. The events of the vision are not necessarily located in the prophet’s time and place. But when the vision is explained to the prophet afterward, the explanation always comes in the time, place and circumstances of the visionary.
For example, in Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar is taken down to the end of time in his vision of the great image and the stone that became a great mountain that filled the whole earth (Dan. 2:31-36). The explanation of the vision by Daniel, however, is firmly grounded in the time and place of Nebuchadnezzar. The interpretation begins with a straightforward, unambiguous assertion, “You are that head of gold (Dan 2:38).” Nebuchadnezzar is then told that the series of kingdoms that follow are “after you” (2:39) in point of time.
As was the case with Daniel 2, the apocalyptic prophecy of Dan 7 is divided into two parts; a description of the vision, in which the prophet is transported through time and space to view various entities and events, mostly in his future (Dan 7:2-14 and 21-22), and an explanation of the vision, given in the language, time and place of the prophet (Dan 7:15-20, 23-27). Even though Daniel experienced all elements of the vision, including the final events, the explanation clarifies that the vision is essentially about the future experience of Daniel’s people (Dan 7:17-18, 23-27). The explanation comes for the benefit of Daniel first. It, therefore, explains things in terms of his location in the world and in history, in terms he can understand. The same pattern can be seen in Daniel 8 and Zech 4:1-14.
This makes logical sense. For an explanation to make sense to me it needs to be framed in terms of my language and location in time and space. Prophets don’t usually seem to understand the revelation from visions alone. An explanation is necessary for the revelation to be understood. Since that explanation is given for the benefit of the prophet, it is based on the time, place and circumstances in which the seer lives. This principle has profound implications for the interpretation of difficult apocalyptic texts like Rev 17:7-11, as we will see in the next blog.
With regard to Revelation 17, verses 3-6 clearly portray a vision in which John sees and reacts to a number of things. Verses 7-18 then go on to explain a number of things. It makes sense, then, if in the explanation John is told that some things are in the past, others are present and others are future, that the point from which to understand all three concept is the time in which John received the vision and hears the explanation.