We have reached a point in our study of Daniel, where certain questions arise that require special consideration. Therefore in this essay we are going to delay our study of Daniel for one week in order to take up some of these important issues.
First, we must deal with the apocalyptic and prophetic nature of Daniel. Fairly early in the study we did talk a little about apocalyptic literature. We noted at that time that the Jews developed this form of literature during times of persecution. It is a literature that speaks of a doctrine of two ages, the first being the present age, which is temporary, evil, and under the control of Satan.
The second age is the age to come, which will be eternal, glorious, and under the control of God or his Messiah. This new age will be instituted by direct intervention of God. His Christ, the Son of Man, will come to destroy evil and institute the eternal kingdom, thus ending the suffering of God’s people.
SYMBOLISM: THE BIBLICAL PROPHET’S TOOL
Symbolism is a Communication device. And the prophets used symbols in several ways. The most common symbols were verbal symbols. Verbal Symbols are symbols that are described in words.
For example Hosea, inspired by God, gave symbolic names to his children. When his first child, a son was born, he named him Jezreel because of God’s judgment that would come in a battle in the valley of Jezreel. He named his second child, a daughter, “Not Pitied,” because God would have no more pity on Israel. And then he named his second son, “Not My People,” because Israel had forfeited her place as God’s people (Hosea 1:1-9, esp. vv. 4, 6, 9).
The biblical prophets also used symbolic actions. An example from the New Testament was the action of the prophet Agabus (Acts 21:10-11). When Paul was ready to go to Jerusalem near the end of his third missionary journey, Agabus took Paul’s girdle (the equivalent of our belts) and tied up his own feet and hands with it. And then he announced: “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this girdle and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” Thus, we see the role of symbolism in prophecy. Symbolic language and actions point to something real, but its images are not the reality itself.
Now then, when we interpret symbolism in prophecy, there are five principles that we ought to follow. First, we should approach prophetic symbolism with humility. Daniel provides a good example. He said in respect to the vision reported in chapter eight “I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding” (v. 27). Modern interpreters should have the same kind of humility without abandoning the quest for understanding.
Second, when interpreting prophetic symbolism, we must recognize the primacy of imagination over reason. We should not make the mistake of interpreting symbolic, imaginative word-pictures, as logical statements. They are like parables, which generally make a single point. Not all of the details are necessarily significant. In other words we must learn to think in pictures.
Third, when interpreting prophetic symbolism, we should find the meaning in the context. In some cases the author actually tells the reader what the symbols mean. In chapter eight we were told that the ram with the shorter and longer horns symbolized Media and Persia. And the goat symbolized the king of Greece. Another example would be Rev. 1:20, where the seven lampstands are identified as the seven churches for whom the Revelation was written..
Fourth, we should look for the prophet’s pastoral concern. The prophets were speaking, first of all, to their own people. Even John’s Revelation had primary application to the congregations for whom John wrote it, rather than to us.
And fifth, we must look for the main point. Again, the analogy with parables is instructive. Interpretation for our day does not require “detail‑for‑detail” correspondence between John’s symbols and our circumstances. [See both Armerding and Gasque, Handbook of Biblical Prophecy, pp. 91-95 and Michelsen, Interpreting the Bible, pp. 236-239.]
MULTIPLE FULFILLMENTS OF OT PROPHESIES
We have seen in our studies thus far that much of what we call prophecy in the Bible is “forthtelling.” Forthtelling is non-predictive prophecy that needs no fulfillment. But there is a predictive element, the so-called “foretelling” element. And under this category there are two types.
First there are those prophecies that have a single fulfillment. In most of those cases, the prophet makes a conscious prediction for his historical context that will be fulfilled in his historical context. Such a prophecy needs no fulfillment in the NT, as when Isaiah prophesied that Sennacherib, the King of Assyria would not conquer Judah (Is. 37).
Sometimes the prophet makes a conscious prediction for the end times that will be fulfilled directly at that time, as is the case with the Son of Man coming on clouds of glory in Dan. 7. All such prophecies have a single fulfillment.
But then there are other predictive prophecies that have multiple fulfillments. These illustrate what is called the “prophetic perspective.”
In cases of prophecies that have multiple fulfillment, the prophet makes a conscious prediction for his OT historical context that the NT says also has a messianic fulfillment in the end-time. Normally the prophet is not conscious of the future application when he utters the prophecy. For example in Isaiah chapter seven, Isaiah prophesied about a child that would be named Emanuel that would be born as a sign for Ahaz the king. Isaiah had no idea that his prophecy would have a second fulfillment when Jesus was born in the distant future (Is. 7:10-16; Mt. 1:23)
Another important tool of the prophets is typology. Typology is not predictive prophecy, but it is a significant means of indirect revelation. It is a correspondence of pattern between a person, event or thing in the OT, called the type, and one in the NT, called the antitype. “A correspondence of pattern” simply means that they are analogous; they are like one another. In other words, the OT type is like the NT antitype.
For example, when Hosea was speaking for God about God’s love for Israel, he did so by speaking about the Exodus from Egypt. And then he declared, “out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). Then several hundred years later, Mathew, while writing about Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ escape to Egypt and their return after the death of Herod, saw a typological correspondence between the two instances of calling sons out of Egypt (Mt. 2:13-15). Matthew did not understand Hosea 11:1 as a predictive prophecy. Rather he saw it as typology, because of the similarity of pattern between the coming out of Egypt by Israel and Jesus.
Another example is Jonah. Jesus himself saw a typological correspondence between the three days that Jonah spent in the belly of the fish and the three days that he, Jesus, would spend in the grave (Mt. 12:39-40).
Another example that Jesus used was the story of Moses lifting up a bronze snake on a pole to stop a plague when Israel was complaining in he wilderness after coming out of Egypt. All who looked at the uplifted serpent lived (Num. 21:4-9). Jesus saw the correspondence of pattern between the uplifted snake and the soon to be uplifted Son of Man. All who would believe in the Son of Man would have eternal life (Jn. 3:14-15). Of course the life given by Christ is on a higher, more significant level (eternal as opposed to physical). But the analogy, the correspondence, is there. Another significant distinction is that between typology and allegory. In the case of typology, the correspondence is strictly within the historical framework in which it is seen. Allegory on the other hand involves arbitrarily assigned hidden meanings. That is, the interpreter provides the meanings rather than the historical context. Once again, a comparison with the parables of Jesus is instructive.
In Gal. 4:22-31 Paul uses the verb allegorein to describe that Hager the slave and Sarah the free woman figuratively represent “two covenants.” The old covenant produces slavery, and the new covenant produces freedom.
Another example of allegorical fulfillment is I Cor. 10:4, where Paul writes of the Israelites in the wilderness that “they drank from the supernatural rock which followed them and The Rock was Christ.” Unless certain controls are held in relation to typological interpretations, the process can get out of hand. First, it must be limited to actual historical events that are central, not just incidental accompaniments.
Second, the interpretation must have a NT warrant; that is the interpreter must not invent meanings and correspondences. If one starts to invent meanings, then they are slipping into allegory, which is not a legitimate means of interpretation. The reason it is not legitimate is because by definition allegory is uncontrolled, arbitrary assignment of meanings.