A Word to the Church Concerning Apocalyptic Literature
For the last three months I have been poured over my desk doing research and writing for our sermon series in Daniel at the People of Mars Hill church. Delving into the riches of the first six chapters of Daniel’s book has led to a fruitful harvest. We witnessed the Lord’s mighty hand in setting up, humbling, and deposing kings. We noted his faithfulness to his promises, in preserving a remnant in the midst of exile, delivering them time and time again from the pagan kings of Babel. We mentioned the deep irony of the Babylonian name given to Daniel, Belteshazzar, which literally means “Bel protects his life” (Bel being one of the primary Babylonian gods), and the fact that he outlived the entire Babylonian empire into the Medo-Persian era. But now we move to chapter seven, which marks the transition between genres, i.e., narrative to apocalyptic.
In chapter seven, Daniel transitions from what was to what will be. He begins to paint a phantasmal picture with his words describing a great sea, ghastly beasts likened to lions, bears, leopards, and even one so terrible that “it defies any zoological category.” Daniel reports: “I saw in my vision of the night” (v. 2); “I watched” (vv. 4, 9, 11); “I looked” (v. 6); “I was watching” (vv. 13, 21). Most assuredly, Scripture is meant to be read, understood, and applied. But clearly, here, we can witness that Daniel’s intention is to recreate what he experienced with bold descriptions and rich imagery. He appeals to our senses to assist us in sharing some of the anxiety and trepidation he experienced. G.K. Chesterton once wrote in a children’s picture book, “But don’t believe in anything that can’t be told in colored pictures!”
Many, for a myriad of reasons, anxiously obsess over these seemingly esoteric texts. There are a great deal of people who believe that the book of Daniel will help us predict the end of the world. Such efforts have been met with a great deal of disappointments. These failed attempts to use Daniel and other apocalyptic texts to web current events have painted Daniel in an unfavorable light, subsequently leading to a pastoral aversion to preaching the book—or at least the last six chapters. Sibley Towner states the issue bluntly, “Why should preachers risk taking into their pulpits the time bombs that tick away in the Book of Daniel?” The spectrum of enjoyment of eschatological discussions is similar to the temperature range of a hot pocket: volcanic heat and frozen tundra. In this short post, I hope to nudge both sides back to the middle.
Recently, I began reading a book that depicted a story of a single father, whose wife had died in labor, raising his six year old daughter on his own. He noticed she was having great difficulty with her sight. Doctors determined that her vision was deteriorating, and informed her father that his daughter would soon be blind. While many pitied his situation—and her condition—he did not allow her to feel downcast or second-rate. However, after realizing he would not live forever, he began to worry about her wellbeing after he died. He labored every evening to replicate a scaled model of their village in wood. It took him years to whittle out this mini-city. Once completed, he began to work diligently with his daughter every night: guiding her hands over the buildings, walking her fingers down the streets.
Every day, he would have his daughter follow him on his walk to work, gripping his back belt loop with her finger. He would call out to her the names of streets, shops, etc., making her sensible to the realities that correspond to the replica city. One day after work, he asked his daughter if she knew where they were. She replied, “I think so.” He picked her up, spun her around three times, and informed her she would be leading them home that evening. The thought was, one day he would not be there to help her, and he did not want her to feel helpless and lost.
I fear this is how many see apocalyptic literature: God carefully laying out for us how the future will unfold, so that we will be able to find our way home. This, however, is a tragic view, for it overlooks the promise that God will never leave us; he has promised to be with us always; he has given us the Spirit to lead us and guide us. We will never have to “find our way home,” because in a sense, we are already home (Eph 2:6, 19). No one can ever pluck us from his hand, and he who began a good work in us is faithful to bring us to completion.
What, then, is God’s intent in disclosing these things to us?
- He reveals to us the end before it happens so that we will trust and believe that all things are in his hands; he is never caught off guard or surprised by anything.
- He has perfectly, and meticulously ordained all things to accomplish his purposes: his maximal glory and our maximal joy.
- He reveals these things to us so that we will be ready and “long for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).
- He reveals these things to us to set before us the promises of a better world, which helps us to persevere in the here and now.
Much time, energy, ink, consternation, and anxiety has been spent trying to ascertain the identity of certain beasts, horns, etc. And it must be said that desiring to know more about these images is not something to be avoided necessarily, as even Daniel had a special interest in these things (Daniel 7:19–20). God does not, however, disclose what will be to give us a biblical decoder ring for the news. In Daniel 7 (and passages of that ilk), God not only reveals to us the future, he reveals to us himself. So take off your tinfoil hats, share your armageddon rations, and put on Christ (Romans 13:14). Remember, if you find yourself concerned, uneasy, apprehensive, fearful, perturbed, troubled, bothered, disturbed, distressed, disquieted, fretful, agitated, nervous, edgy, antsy, unquieted, tense, overwrought, worked up, keyed up, jumpy, worried sick, with your stomach in knots while reading passages like Daniel 7, you are doing it incorrectly. It is no accident that the scenes involving four beasts follows a mighty act of God delivering Daniel from the lions’ mouths.
The reference to “the land of Shinar” (Daniel 1:2) recalls Gen 11:2 and the tower of Babel. The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, echoed the hubris of Babel when the impetus for his construction of a statue mirrored the motivation of the people of Babel in building the tower, which was to “make a name for [them]selves” (Genesis 11:4). In Babel, the core intention was to construct a city with the humanistic dream of one world, one common set of social values, and one language. They attempted to do so without thought to their Creator (Romans 1:21). Now, in the land of Shinar (Babylon), we witness this same desire taking shape to use one language, one social policy, one common bond of education, etc. to homogenize the populace through cultural subjection—there is nothing new under the sun. Lastly, as Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Biblical Theology of the Hebrew Bible (Leicester, England : Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2003), 213 reminds us, “Just as Babylon was born in linguistic confusion (Gen 11:1–9), so it ends in the same way (Dan 5). Its fate is written on the wall for profaning the sacred, and no-one can understand the message except Daniel.” ↩
While there are many definitions of apocalyptic literature, what I have in mind when I use the term is very close to Roger Beckwith’s definition in Roger T. Beckwith, Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian: Biblical, Intertestamental and Patristic Studies (Boston: Brill Academic Pub, 2001), 345: “[A]pocalyptic is literature akin to prophecy, concentrating on one aspect of prophecy, the revealing of secrets, and setting forth great secrets revealed by God to a favoured saint or prophet, whether about his purpose for the future, about the constitution of nature or about the unseen world, the mode of the revelation being sometimes highly symbolical but sometimes literal and unusually detailed.” ↩
James A. Montgomery, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Daniel, International Critical Commentary (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927), 282. ↩
Sibley W. Towner, Daniel (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 1–2. ↩