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Getting the big picture ::

Prompted by the last issue of Perspective, Mike Fischer ponders the paradox of Apocalyptic Perspicuity…
Source: Perspective Vo7 No1 © Perspective 1999

Crystal Clear

I don’t usually enjoy nicking stuff – but in the last issue of Perspective (Oct-Dec 1998), Luke Tattersall presented us with his sermon outlines on the book of Daniel, which he told us were in turn based upon Bryson Smith’s approach to the book. Now, never having preached through Daniel before, and having just finished a series on a New Testament book, I thought I’d give Daniel a go. And as usual, I found the Perspective material very useful and thought-provoking – a great stimulus for preparing my own stuff. In fact, some stuff I even pinched holus-bolus… but that’s what Perspective is for, isn’t it?

That’s enough shameless plugging for the time being. Because what I want to relate here is how, in the course of this series of sermons, I had a fair bit of space to think about a few of the issues involved in interpreting apocalyptic literature in general, and Daniel 7-12 in particular.
I mean, I plugged my way through chapters 1-6 straight-forwardly enough. I’ve had a fair amount of experience on preaching from Old Testament narrative, and so I felt I was on familiar ground. Now, as we’ve all discovered, the great thing about doing expository series of sermons is that it’s very hard to skip the hard bits without people noticing! And so as chapter 7 drew nigh, and the perverse part of my brain fleetingly entertained the idea of skipping chapters 7-12 of Daniel, the cool rationalist in me realised that whatever happened now, I had my canoe in the rapids and reversing out was not really an option.
Which was a good thing, too. I had basic lessons about the clarity of God’s Word reinforced for me, which was a great little spin-off as the church worked their way with me through chapters 7-12. No, let me re-phrase that. It was a huge spin-off.

Because as I studied Daniel 7-12, I realised afresh how down-right absurd and misguided so much interpretation is when it comes to these books and passages. To begin with, there’s the common practice of interpreting both Daniel 7-12 and Revelation in terms of the modern political scene. Interpreters claim (for example) that this beast over here is the Soviet bloc, and that one over there is Benjamin Netanyahu, and the 10 horns are the EEC, and so on. This ‘current political’ approach to apocalyptic enjoys a long and varied history. In fact, if you want to sample the history of such interpretation over the last 20 years or so, just wander into your local second-hand bookshop and make your way over to the ‘religion’ section. And there it will be – a regular smattering of stuff, The Late Great Planet Earth and its ilk.
Now, what is striking as you browse such books is how much the assured interpretations are shaped by the politics of the time. ‘The beast’ is identified as Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein or… take your pick. (But I thought Gorbachev was a prime candidate – I mean, he had that mysterious ‘mark’ on his forehead…). Now, this ‘current political’ approach is much more than 20 years old – Goldingay in his commentary (NICOT, Daniel) provides an extensive survey of how the book has been interpreted in this manner down through the centuries. – which highlights the ultimate futility of such an approach.
But the basic problem with such an approach isn’t just that it can’t commit itself to one view. For there is a sort of arrogance built into the whole enterprise. Whether it is explicitly stated or not, ultimately such an approach says that the text had no relevance for the readers of (in this case) Daniel’s day, and it is only in our time that the Scriptures have come to be fulfilled. Only as we gaze at the current political landscape, it is alleged, can we make full and proper sense of the text. Thus the original readers are seen to have been somewhat ‘in the dark’, mere custodians of something written for us, and not for them.
Of course, this is true in a very restricted sense for the book of Daniel (cf. the repeated injunction to Daniel to “seal up” the visions as they concern a distant epoch). But we must not ignore the great purpose of the book of Daniel to encourage the post-exilic people of God with the triumphant message of the sure advent of the eternal Kingdom of God. The fact is, it was written for them, and if we ignore the message to them then we will inevitably not be true to the book, and miss the message for us.

And like a row of dominos, the effects of this bad approach to understanding apocalyptic roll on. Because you will have noticed how the ‘current political’ approach always seems to be dominated by ‘guru’ figures, who condescend to share the ‘hidden’ meaning of Daniel with us. Were it not for their insight, it is suggested, we simply would not understand the book. And so it is that large slabs of God’s Word are rendered out-of-bounds for the average Christian reader. I know I am not the only minister to have come across numerous Christians who actually are afraid to read anything in their Bibles with an apocalyptic flavour, because they have been conned into believing that it’s “too hard to understand”. A classic ruse of the devil, if ever there was one.
This means that we must vigorously resist any attempt to put the Bible, or sections of it, into the hands of an interpretive ‘elite’. The Word of God – all of it – has always been meant for the ‘common people’ (among whom we include ourselves). The Word of God was written for the people of God, and because God intended that it be understood clearly, he saw that it was written in language and terms and genres – including apocalyptic – that average people could unambiguously understand. It was never secret or ‘gnostic’ in character; it was and is plain and clear.

The more I reflect on it, the more I am surprised and dismayed that this Biblically-based common sense (‘theology’ seems too elite a term!) needs to be said and taught in our churches these days. The God of the Bible willed it, the authors of Scripture therefore intended it, and so the Reformers fought for it – namely the idea that all of God’s Word does most definitely lie within the grasp of the average believer. (Which is why Luther undertook the colossal task of translating the Bible into the everyday German of his day – much to the disgust of the Roman Catholic Church, who liked the ‘guru’ approach to things.)
And so it should come as no surprise to us to find that the book of Daniel is intrinsically clear and plain. When we read it as we would any other book of the Bible, i.e. with our eyes open and our minds alive to the way the book is written, there is nothing that’s hard to understand – especially with apocalyptic literature, and Daniel is a case in point.
Take the vision of chapter 7, the first vision of four in Daniel 7-12. The initial vision which Daniel sees is recorded in verses 1 to 14. Understandably, the content of the vision appalls Daniel – but not surprisingly it also mystifies him as well. So, he does what any of us who received such a vision would do.

I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this. (vs.15 & 16).
At this point, it’s worth underscoring the fact that this is exactly what any of us would do, if we were in Daniel’s sandals. We’d have one question burning a hole in our minds, namely, “What in the blazes is all this about?” And naturally, the text goes on to answer Daniel’s question, our question, for us. That is to say, the chapter is self-interpreting. It shouldn’t need to be said, but the God of the Bible is not a perverse God, one who delights in dangling intractable mysteries before his people’s eyes. He has a message he wants us to understand, and he will make it plain.
And so here in chapter 7, Daniel approaches a heavenly being with his question. We will be told all that we need to know concerning this vision, and – by implication – we will not be told what we do not need to know. And the following interpretation of verses 16 to 28 is indeed clear – the Big Picture of God’s plan is given to Daniel. Kingdoms will rise and fall, but God’s Kingdom will prevail (v.22). His people will come through it all, and they will rule with their God, through the “one like a son of man” (v.14 cf. v.27).

Of course, the fact is, the interpretation of the vision given in verses 16 onwards bugs the living daylights out of the ‘prophecy buffs’ – it just isn’t comprehensive enough. They fail to hear Daniel’s words at the end of the chapter: “This is the end of the matter.” So they go beyond the text, they rake in detail and suppositions from goodness knows where, all in an effort to interpret a vision we’ve already had interpreted for us!
But the fact that Scripture doesn’t go as far as many of us want it to go should put us on the alert. For if the interpretation of the vision doesn’t satisfy our ‘political curiosity itch’, then we must ask whether it is an itch we should have. If we will not let the book’s own interpretation stand, then what we are saying is that we are not willing to let the Bible speak for itself. Surely, if we have to know which beast represents which Kingdom, then the passage itself will tell us. We see this in the vision of chapter 8 – we’re told there that the ram with long horns represents the kings of Persia, and the shaggy goat that comes along and absolutely throttles the ram, that’s the king of Greece. It says it right there in the text.

The thing that you notice about the interpretations of the visions we’re given in the book of Daniel, is the way they stick to the Big Picture, and refuse to tickle our human curiosity. There is a lot of detail given us here in Daniel (as in any apocalyptic) – and it is a mistake of interpretation to try to ruthlessly hunt down the meaning of every discernible detail. Now, this brings us to the very nature of the problem which besets those who get bogged down in all the details. Namely, it is very easy to miss the main point!
I suppose it’s like an interesting picture I saw a while back on the Internet. It was a picture of Bill Gates, which at first sight was made up of thousands and thousands of tiny dots. But if you zoomed in to these tiny dots, each dot was really an image of a banknote! There were Australian banknotes, German banknotes, Zimbabwean banknotes. Of course, it was all just a way of saying, ‘Bill Gates is made of money and not a whole lot else’. (I’ll leave you to ponder the worth of that thesis for yourself!)

Now, with a picture like that, if we focus on the detail (eg. Why is that an American banknote up there, and a Zimbabwean one down there?), then we’ll never get the point – because the detail is only there to make up the Big Picture. By analogy, we can run that very risk when we read apocalyptic literature. We can easily forget that the detail is there for one reason: to make up the big picture. We are never supposed to speculate over the fine details, for just as with the picture of Bill Gates, the detail is – in a way – incidental. We’re not supposed to get preoccupied with it. The detail is there to make up the Big Picture, which is what we’re meant to see.
All this is a way of saying, when we read apocalyptic literature, we must read it in an almost ‘between-the-lines’ kind of way. It’s loaded with imagery, it’s loaded with symbolism, and so we’re meant to picture things as we read, we’re meant to get a feel for what’s going on. In this way, the message of the book won’t be lost on us. Sure, we’ll never make a squillion bucks in seminar royalties with an approach like that, but we’ll be a whole lot closer to the Truth.
And it’s in reading Daniel (and other apocalyptic literature) in this ‘big picture’ kind of way that we can be alert to the interconnections between the various visions in the book of Daniel. I’m not going to spell out the connections in detail, but as the reader starts to get into Daniel 7, feelings of deja-vu abound: “Where have I read this before?” This is because once again we read of four kingdoms, with a distinctive, destructive and divided fourth kingdom. Sure, the metaphors used in the two chapters are different (statue verses beasts rising out of the sea) but the parallels are blatant – and all the more so as both chapters look ahead to the establishment of God’s everlasting Kingdom (2:44,45 and 7:19-14, 22, 26-27). They are two separate visions, but really they’re saying the same thing.
In fact, the feelings of deja-vu continue to assail the reader as he/she moves on through the book, through the visions of chapters 8, 9, and 10-12. There are blatant textual markers which are repeated (most notably the ‘abolishing of the daily sacrifice/ desolating abomination’ in chapters 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12), key themes recur and are developed, and the reader is continually being invited to cross-reference what he/she is reading with what has gone before. In other words, as we read my way through Daniel 7-12, it becomes clear that what we have here is not a series of visions about different things, but a series of visions or ‘panels’ which in fact portray the same fundamental event: the establishment of the Kingdom of God. And the great thing is, you don’t have to be a ‘guru’ to work that out – just an ordinary reader with an ordinary brain.

Now, it almost goes without saying that such an approach does violence to the elaborate schemes of an awful number of books and commentaries. But at the end of the day, this is what we get if we take Daniel on its own terms, and let the book speak for itself. And if we take the time to follow this ‘panelled’ approach to apocalyptic through, we find – funnily enough – that Revelation itself is also a series of ‘panels’. I’ll leave you to guess where the precedent was set for that.

So, preaching through Daniel has been good for me. It’s reinforced for me what I have always known: that God’s Word is clear and accessible to all. And it was a great encouragement to me to get feedback like this from our church folk: “When I heard you were going to preach on chapter 7, I was afraid of what you were going to say – that you’d just confuse me with a load of stuff I just couldn’t understand. But it’s not like that at all, is it – it’s so clear!” Yes, indeed it is – which shouldn’t really surprise us. After all, it’s God’s Word: “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path”.

Mike Fischer is the pastor of Australind Baptist Church in Western Australia.

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