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Without doubt the centuries have witnessed a lot of ignorance in regard to the topic of how biblical prophets used their own Scriptures. Besides ignorance, many also have not even thought to inquire about which methods were used by the prophets as they utilized their own Scriptures. A cursory investigation of the prophetic use of Scripture is not only helpful in understanding the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, but it also provides guidance for us moderns who wish to more accurately understand how the prophet John utilized Scripture.
At the outset it is crucial to remember that the heart of the ministry of biblical prophets was not to give predictions concerning the remote future. In nuce, a straightforward reading of biblical prophets shows that they were messengers from God to call the people of YHWH to return to Moses and to the message of Mt. Horeb by rejecting idolatry and the mistreatment of others, both of which reflected their assimilation to the values of the surrounding pagan nations and cultures. It should surprise no follower of Christ that he correctly summarized the prophets when he stated the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12).
An aspect of the prophetic use of Scripture that sheds light both on the Old Testament prophets and also on the use of the Old Testament by the prophet John is “typological allusion.” This technique or hermeneutical style is called allusion since the prophets do not quote or formally cite earlier Scripture; they allude to it by the use of reminiscent terms or phrases. It is typology, since through the particular message the prophet is hoping to create in the hearts of the audience points of correspondence between the stories contained in earlier Scripture and the message that God is giving through their contemporary ministry. The following example will clarify this often neglected dimension of biblical prophecy as a background to Revelation.
The latter part of the book of Isaiah deals in part with the hope of the redemption of the Jews from Babylonian captivity. With what words and pictures can the prophecies of the book of Isaiah dare offer hope and a future to those Jews who are dejected and without hope because of the decades spent by the waters of Babylon (Ps. 137:1). Isa. 43 boldly offers hope for a resilient future for those weary Jews of Babylon by portraying reminiscent images of the previous mighty acts of YHWH on behalf of his elect people.
For your sake I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation. I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, . . . I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. . . . I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise (Isa. 43:14-21).
How could any Israelite hearing these words from Isa. 43 not see the clear points of correspondence between what God had done for Israel in the Exodus, in the destruction of the Egyptian armies, and in the providential waters from God during the wilderness wanderings and what God would be doing in the liberation of Israel from Babylonian oppression?
This hermeneutical technique of “typological allusion” worked well and often in the book of Isaiah and in other Jewish prophets. It certainly helps the modern student better appreciate the prophetic use of Scripture by Old Testament prophets. This method clearly does not rely upon the idea that later prophets viewed earlier Scripture as predictive. It is a significant distortion to imagine that a later use of earlier Scripture by a prophet presupposed some kind of predictive prophecy understanding. Nor is it necessary to assume that the words of Isa. 43 had to be literally fulfilled for the ancient Jews in Babylon to see the correspondence between YHWH’s former deeds and his promised deeds for those Jews in captivity.
As we will see in later posts, the prophet John followed this pattern of typological allusion to employ Old Testament themes and images, without at all supposing that the Scriptures he was using were somehow predictive or that the imagery had to have a literal fulfillment.
To better clarify the issue of whether one can “keep the words” of a prophetic book, it should be remembered that God expected Israel to obey the words of his prophets. The conviction that someone can respond, either in obedience or disobedience, to a vision, visual act (e.g., gestures), or visual message is continued in the Gospels and the preaching of the early church. Even though the Apostle Peter clearly spent some time “wondering about the meaning of the vision” (Acts 10:17) of the sheet with unclean animals (Acts 10:9-16), he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it had a meaning and it was obvious to him before the end of the episode that the vision meant, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28b). What did Peter do to “keep the words” of the vision he received at Joppa? He went into the home of the unsaved gentile, Cornelius (Acts 10:28).
Just as a person might need help with the meaning of a non-visionary text (e.g., the eunuch in Acts 8:30b-31 required help in understanding the meaning of a text), so at times people need assistance in the interpretation of visionary texts (notice the interpretations given in Dan. 7:15-17; Rev. 7:13-14). To embrace Luther’s skeptical ideas about the meaning of John’s book, “no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it,” is to put yourself on a path where you might even question whether parables can be responded to. Jesus seems to have thought that people in his audience could either obey or disobey the meaning of a parable.
What I am suggesting (contrary to the heirs of the early Luther) is that visions and images have their own grammar and lexicon with which one interprets their meanings, and following that interpretation, one can better understand the blessings that come from keeping such prophetic ideas. The blessing that John promises in this “blessing heptad” will vary depending on the content of the individual images. In light of the phantasmagory [I have been waiting for weeks to use that word] that characterizes John’s prophecy, it is not a superficial or quick task to responsibly interpret the visual content of Revelation.
I have personally chosen to accept the divine perspective on blessings offered at the beginning of Revelation; specifically, there is no blessing for me if I merely hear the words given through John. In order to receive the blessing, I myself must also “take to heart what is written in the words of this prophecy” (Rev. 1:3). Consequently, I cannot go along with the idea that Revelation is so bewildering that all I can hope to learn from it is “who wins in the end.” To state the obvious, there is a correlation between the amount of the “words of this prophecy” that can be understood and the amount of the blessings that can be given based upon “keeping the words of this prophecy.”
As we contemplate the details of biblical study and hermeneutics, John’s prophecy makes it clear that there are truths of God and values of the kingdom that believers must “keep,” whether they are stated in the Greek imperative mood or in colorful and high-decibel visions.