The visions given to the prophets are highly symbolic. The writers are seeing an image in their mind and then putting those images to paper in the form of words - using words to describe what they saw.
They weren't seeing future events, like watching the news. They were seeing scenes, full of symbolic images that conveyed concepts about the future. Remember God's goal in giving these visions to the prophets: to tell the saints that they ultimately win.
The Purpose of ParablesBut I think God has another goal in choosing to reveal these things in symbolic language: to keep this message concealed from those for whom it is not intended - to keep it hidden from the enemy and the lost. The message of the prophets isn't plain. You really have to think about it. You need the help of the Holy Spirit to understand it. You have to want to know the truth and seek it every day. God wants to reveal His plans to those who love Him, love the truth, and prove that by pursuing it every day.
Jesus said that He spoke in parables so that they "would not understand" (Matthew 13:10-17). The message of the parables is intended for those who love and follow the truth. A parable is a memorable and convenient way to deliver a deep message - but only for those who "have ears to hear". Those who pursue, accept, and respond to truth will get it - and be given more.
In parables, ideas are conveyed through stories, or scenes. The images given symbolize something else. The diligent student will start to pick up on these symbols and through that start to "decode" meaning from the scenes being described.
The visions given to the major prophets are intended to accomplish the same thing as when Jesus spoke in parables; namely, to communicate deep meaning to the person for whom it is intended and who is willing to seek it out and believe it.
Interpreting the VisionsWhen interpreting the visions written down by the prophets, I believe the reader must be ready to approach them understanding this fact: the writers of these visions write what they saw chronologically, but what they saw isn't chronological. For example, in the Book of Revelation, after the messages to the churches in Revelation 1-3, John sees a vision of the throne room of heaven in Revelation 4. He starts with the words, "After this I looked, and behold a door standing open in heaven!"
Revelation chapter 5 starts with "Then I saw..."
Chapter 6 begins with, "Now I watched..."
And chapter 7, "After this I saw..."
Each of these is a variation on the statement, "and I saw". John is telling us the order in which he saw things - not necessarily the order in which they are meant to be understood or that they take place in historical time.
Further, we are reading these visions as experienced and told by prophets who know clearly what they saw, but not necessarily the meaning of what they saw.
Progressive RevelationThrough all the the prophetic visions, especially Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, we the readers are receiving a progressively expanding picture of what is going on in heaven, on earth, who the major participants are, and the nature of each of these things - all delivered through the language of parables. We are receiving progressively more information with each vision. Especially in the Book of Revelation, with each "and I saw", we pick up additional information about some element of the story that increases our understanding of the whole.
Think of the way people tell a story of something that they experienced. They tend to tell highlights, the things that were most memorable, followed by other details as they come to mind and are needed to fill in the gaps. If a child comes home from an amusement park, they don't start with talking about how they rode in the car, then stood in line for tickets, then walked through the park, etc. They start with, "Mom! I rode a roller coaster!" Then as the story unfolds about their experiences of the day, other less poignant details get added. "We ate hotdogs for lunch, and Dad let me have a chocolate shake." You get a progressively expanding picture in your mind of the day that was experienced by the child, although the story wasn't given to you chronologically.
In each "and I saw" John is revealing some additional facet, some truth, some detail that is relevant to what the churches will face in the future, who the major players in this story are, and how it will turn out - but the order of these "and I saw" statements is not communicating the order in which they will happen as prophecy unfolds.
To miss this fact will require wild interpretations of the prophetic visions - especially the Book of Revelation which is quite long and contains lots of detail. Requiring a chronological interpretation of events will entirely distort the meaning of the book.
All the major prophecies found in the Bible communicate to the reader a complex scene that is multi-dimensional. While time unfolds in a linear manner, describing it linearly doesn't work. To get the full message, John, in the Book of Revelation and their other prophets in their writings have to see and communicate to us ideas and concepts that are happening partly in heaven, partly on earth, with some events having elements in the past and others in the future, with parties that are involved in some elements and not others. There is a lot going on here which cannot be explained with an "A happened, then B happened, then C."
Let's say that someone is writing a book about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. Fully describing this major historical event could not be done chronologically very well. A better method would be to tell the story over and over - each time from a different perspective. In one chapter you may discuss it from the perspective of a soldier on the front lines. In another from the perspective of the President. Later from the point of view of family whose loved one is on battlefield. You may tell the story of a slave whose future hinges on the war's outcome. The writer will probably move from perspective to perspective, focusing here for a bit, there for bit, moving forward and backwards through chronological time to emphasize elements at the appropriate point to communicate the ideas that the author finds most important.
With each rendering of the same story, the reader picks up additional detail and gets a deeper understanding of the events, their impact, the people affected, and how they were affected. This is the technique being used by God as the prophets experience the various visions that they wrote about.
So lets dive into the Book of Revelation next "reading" it in this context.
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