The Problem of Prophecy

I am currently teaching a two-week intensive class on Daniel and Revelation.  I have toyed with the idea of renaming the class “Introduction to Apocalyptic” even if such a title would scare a few students away.  I approach the class from a hermeneutical perspective and try to give some strategy for reading Daniel and Revelation as examples of biblical apocalyptic.

For a text book I chose Brent Sandy’s Plowshares and Pruning Hooks (IVP, 2002).  I find this little book a helpful primer for not only apocalyptic, but also for the hermeneutics of metaphors. Maybe I am hoping for too much here, but I think that a solid understanding of how non-literal communication will help us steer clear of the traps ensnare many interpreters of Revelation.  (I used three metaphors in that last sentence intentionally)

In his second chapter, Sandy lists seven “problems” the reader must face when reading the prophetic books of the Old Testament.

1. Predictive of Poetic? Some language in a text is used to describe a writer’s current situation in poetic language. Yet other language may be used to predict something in the future (near or distant). Sandy uses Psalm 22 as an example. To what extent is the language of this psalm describing the Psalmists own state of dereliction, yet there are other elements which seem to predict the cross.

2. Literal or Figurative? For me, this is less of a problem since I have been emphasizing the metaphoric nature of language. It is virtually impossible to express thoughts without using implicit or explicit imagery. Some statements are propositions (such as the prophet describing a real historical event) Other times the prophet uses hyperbole to describe something. One of Sandy’s examples is Isa 48:4: “your neck muscles are like iron.” This is a clear image, the person does not have an iron neck. Yet it expresses a very real situation. So is this literal or figurative?

3. Exact or Emotive? Sometimes prophets predict things which will happen just as predicted. When Jonah said, “in three days Nineveh will be destroyed,” he meant that literally. When Isaiah said “a child will be born,” he meant that a child was about to be born. But in many other cases a metaphor will be used to stir an emotion or call to mind a feeling (usually of fear or dread).

4. Conditional or Unconditional? Predictive prophecy often has a conditional aspect, even if that is not explicitly stated. This is the case in Jonah’s prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed. But other times the prophet describes a coming event which is certain. This is the case of the progression of empires in Daniel 2 and 7. There is no question that these empires will rise and fall.

5. Real or Surreal? This is more of a problem for apocalyptic literature, since many of the images used are by their nature surreal and other-worldly. There is little doubt that Daniel did not want us to imagine a literal bear with a mouth full of ribs. But when he describes a “sanctuary,” does he have in mind the real Temple in Jerusalem?

6. Oral or Written? For a prophet like Isaiah, the oral delivery of a prophecy is important – he delivered a message to a specific king at a specific time with a specific intention. But Daniel is not addressing a particular king, the book is a literary work which may verbally allude to other texts. To what extent is a prophet “preaching” or “researching”?

7. Fulfilled or Unfulfilled? From our perspective, a prophecy may be said to be “fulfilled” even if it was not from the perspective of the prophet. Certainly our presuppositions about the nature of the church and Israel will come into play here, but it is possible to read a text like Daniel 9 (the seventy-sevens) as wholly fulfilled or as partially fulfilled with aspects yet to come.

Sandy’s questions are more difficult for apocalyptic literature.  I am tempted to declare “it is all surreal” and walk away from a text like Daniel 8:1-14, yet the writer of this apocalyptic vision intended something by it.  The difficulty for us is determining the function of the metaphors.  The writer chose to describe real events as rams and goats battling on a great plain for a reason, by paying careful attention to the point of the metaphors the reader will be closer to the meaning intended by the author.