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This article is excerpted from Symposium on Revelation, Book 1, (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), Chapter I, "Foundation Principles of Interpretation," pp. 14-19


The Heart of Apocalyptic Prophecy

By Kenneth A. Strand

Here we turn our attention specifically to two elements absolutely vital to understand if we are to grasp the true dynamic of apocalyptic. I will refer to them as the dimensions of "vertical continuity" and "horizontal continuity."

Vertical continuity. The ancient Semitic mind saw heaven and earth in close touch with each other. This "vertical continuity" is basic to, and axiomatic for, the entire biblical corpus, both Old and New Testaments. Nowhere is it more prominently displayed, however, than in apocalyptic. It is not without reason, for instance, that the book of Revelation repeatedly presents heavenly settings in connection with its description of activities that take place on earth. Actually, apocalyptic prophecy pictorializes and dramatizes this vital element of the biblical perspective.

If we are to grasp the real beauty and receive the efficacy of God's messages to us in His Word, we must return to this concept of reality that puts heaven in close spiritual touch with earth. This truth is crucial for our understanding of the messages of the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation.

Horizontal continuity. The second central feature of apocalyptic, the dimension of "horizontal continuity," also needs careful consideration. Just as apocalyptic prophecy pictorializes and dramatizes a vertical continuity of activity between heaven and earth, so it also pictorializes and dramatizes a horizontal continuity in its forward outlook. History is a continuum under God's control, moving ever closer to that glorious consummation when God's own kingdom of righteousness will be established for eternity.

This particular type of prophetic forecast that delineates developments within a historical continuum is a feature that stands in striking contrast to classical prophecy. As already mentioned, the latter focuses on the prophet's own time, and then may offer an expansion for a further and broader fulfillment of cosmic scope at the end of the age. It is proper, therefore, to speak in a certain sense of the two focal points or "two foci" of classical prophecy.

In contrast, apocalyptic prophecy does not proceed on this basis at all. Rather, apocalyptic prophecy sees a continuum, a progression or sequence in history. It does not look simply upon two focal points - the prophet's time and the end of time - with a gap between. The apocalyptic style is clearly illustrated, for example, in the sequences of the image scene of Daniel 2 and the four beasts and their horns of Daniel 7.

But this sort of apocalyptic approach to history is not unique with Daniel. The extracanonical apocalypses have indications of the same. For instance, the brief "Apocalypse of Weeks" in Ethiopic Enoch 91:12-17 and 93:1-10 divides history into 10 successive periods, the last one embracing the final judgment and introducing the eternal age. Another illustration is Baruch's parable in chapters 53-74, of a thundercloud which rains down clear and inky waters in some 12 alternately bright and dark periods, finally reaching the eschatological consummation. And there are a number of other examples as well, including the vision of the multi-winged eagle in 4 Ezra, chapters 11-12, and the dream-vision of bulls and sheep (plus a wide array of other animals) in Ethiopic Enoch, chapters 85-90.

Sequential historical developments or processes are also apparent in the divinely inspired book of Revelation. We may certainly think of the striking examples within the sequences of the seven seals and of the seven trumpets, the seals being broken in succession and the trumpets being blown in succession. Likewise, the depiction of the animosity of the dragon in chapter 12 embraces a sequence, for he first attacks the Man-child, then the woman, and finally the remnant of the woman's offspring. Also indicative of this same sort of sequential perspective is the reference in 17:10 to the seven heads of the beast as being seven kings, of whom five "have fallen," "one is [in John's time]," and "the other has not yet come."

We have purposely placed emphasis on this "horizontal-continuity" dimension of apocalyptic, for two reasons: (1) It is absolutely central to the apocalyptic portrayal of history as a succession of events, and (2) in recent writings by certain prominent evangelical scholars, the apocalyptic view of history has been confused with the classical-prophecy approach of "dual fulfillment" or "two foci."

For example, Ladd* sets forth the idea that the book of Revelation envisages the leopardlike sea beast of chapter 13 as a symbol of both the ancient Roman Empire of John's day (preterism) and an Antichrist still to come (futurism). But this kind of two-focal-points interpretational procedure wrongfully transposes the characteristics of one type of prophetic portrayal to another type, where it simply does not fit. In fact, when the dual-foci pattern is imposed on the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation, it brings distortion to the very messages God intends to convey in these prophecies.

Classical prophecy, with its emphasis on the prophet's own day and an occasional "two-foci" perspective, never elaborates on the events leading up to the final great "day of the Lord." There is, for example, no reference in classical prophecy to an upcoming, end-time Antichrist power. Ladd arrives at this sort of Antichrist, as we have noted, by wrongly imposing the two-foci classical-prophecy modality upon Revelation where Antichrist is indeed found. But, in Revelation (and Daniel as well) the Antichrist appears within a totally different frame of reference, namely, within a historical continuum, as a segment of Revelation's ongoing horizontal continuity.

In short, the very nature of apocalyptic prophecy rules out preterism, futurism, and any combination of them, in favor of the historicist approach. This fact is vital and has important theological implications for our study of the Apocalypse.

One further point may need some clarification here: Why does this concept of historical continuum emerge in apocalyptic in distinction from the "two-foci" concept of classical prophecy? I suggest that a specific background from the biblical literature itself serves as the pattern for this characteristic of apocalyptic, namely, the Old Testament historical narratives. Apocalyptic prophecy projects into the future a continuation of the Bible's historical record.

God's sovereignty and constant care for His people are always in the forefront of the Bible's portrayal of the historical continuum, whether it is depicted in past events (historical books) or in events to come (apocalyptic prophecy). Both Daniel and Revelation reveal a divine overlordship and mastery regarding the onward movement of history beyond the prophet's own time - a future history that will culminate when the God of heaven establishes His own eternal kingdom that will fill the whole earth and stand forever.

Undoubtedly the most misunderstood and misused facet of apocalyptic relates to its horizontal continuity. Most of the generally recognized characteristics of apocalyptic appear at times in other prophetic literature in the Bible. But apocalyptic prophecy's horizontal continuity is a characteristic that stands in sharp contrast to the approach to history given in classical prophecy.

Theological interpretation of Revelation, in order to be sound, must be compatible with this historical perspective. Revelation embraces, as does the book of Daniel, a step-by-step progression through history, not a polarized focus on either the ancient period or the eschatological climax or both. Those commentators who wish to combine preterism and futurism as the best approach to Revelation fly right in the face of the very nature of the book itself as an apocalypse. It is vital that we be true to the actual historical perspective of Revelation if we are to derive correct conclusions about this book's important messages.


*G. E. Ladd, A commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, 1972), 13; and Ladd's article entitled "Apocalyptic, Apocalypse," in Baker's Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, 1960), 53.