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Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation


In this TIMEOUT, I will reflect on the theology of the Book of Daniel. Daniel’s influence on Revelation is huge, but one important piece has gone missing. I also have a note on the tears of John and a P.S. on responses to my previous postings.

History and Theology in Daniel

Daniel 2 is a go-to text in Seventh-day Adventist evangelism but a run-from text in church life otherwise. In communities that do not do evangelism, such as university communities, sermons on Daniel 2 are a rarity. In Daniel 2, the king has a dream (2:1-45). He knows that he has dreamt, and he is accustomed to thinking that dreams communicate messages from a higher power. But he cannot remember his dream (2:1-9)! He demands of his advisors not only to interpret the dream but to retrieve it (2:9)!  His insistence distills the epistemological issue to its essence: that certain types of knowledge are in God’s possession only — revealed knowledge. If the dream is communication from an outside intelligence, then it is not a product of the king’s mental activity. If, too, the dream represents a message from God rather than unprovoked human intellectual activity, God is free to share the message with other people than the king. Nebuchadnezzar is on to something when he insists, “Tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can give me its interpretation” (2:9).

The desire to know makes Nebuchadnezzar a sympathetic figure. There is a spiritual tenor to his quest, a sense of awareness that God is making contact. Making Babylon Great Again is not the only subject on his mind.

To Daniel and his friends, the epistemological predicament is dire, but it is also an opportunity (Daniel 2:14-18). Epistemology fans out to become theology because the message “made known” to Nebuchadnezzar is “made known” to Daniel (2:19). His role is modest, but the new epistemic horizon is vast. What is made known, is profoundly theological and shocking.

Daniel proceeds to recount to the king his dream (Daniel 2:31-36) and then its interpretation (2:37-45). The dream presents the flow of history in broad strokes (I prefer “history” to “historicism”). Decline and dissolution seem inherent to the human project: it is represented as a statue standing on feet of iron and clay. The constituent elements are unable to overcome intrinsic incompatibility (2:33, 41-43). In contrast to this, the dream brings into focus the heavenly alternative.

a stone was cut out, not by hands [lā’ biydayin] (Daniel 2:34, translation mine)

a stone was cut out from the mountain not by hands [lā’ biydayin] (Daniel 2:45, translation mine)

These verses stress how the stone was not cut out. It is justified to say, as most translations do: “a stone was cut out, not by human hands.” And yet the “hands” in question are not specified as human or divine (Daniel 2:34, 45), and “hand” is a Semitic metaphor for “power.” We compromise the text if we only stress the contrast between divine and human agency. Another contrast — and one that is even more important, focuses on method.

Let the distinctive action now read:

“a stone was cut out — but not by power” (Daniel 2:34, 45).  

Method and agency go together. It is especially the different means that carries over into Revelation. Daniel’s claim to supernatural, non-human knowledge is certified less by the power to predict than by the ability to know the essence of the kingdom of God: “a stone was cut out — but not by power” (Daniel 2:34, 45). A principle other than power is at work in history, an elusive principle that is not of this world — and not only because the one who operates it isn’t human. God’s “hand” represents a different mode of action (2:34, 45).

In Daniel 9, we read of the “Anointed One” (lit. the Messiah) that he “shall be cut off and shall have nothing” (9:26). A Messianic reading will see this as a reference to Jesus. Daniel 12, returning to the “hand” of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, says that “when the power (‘hand’) of the holy people has been finally broken, all these things will be completed” (12:7). This is theology, not only history, and it is theology that is absent or underdeveloped in approaches that mine Daniel for its predictive historical treasures. Daniel’s vision of a kingdom not based on power leads straight to the vision on Patmos and its most riveting scene. “And I saw,” says John,

     in the middle of the throne,

     [in the middle of] the four living creatures,

     and in the middle of the twenty-four elders

a lamb standing

     as though it had been

     killed with violence,

having seven horns and seven eyes (Revelation 5:6, translation mine).

No one anticipated this, whether Daniel or John: this is truly the dream that no one can remember. And now — let the horrors catalogued in the sealed scroll come on full display (5:1; 6:1-11). The figure in the middle will not be stymied (5:6). He “has what it takes to open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5).

John’s Tears

Who is he, the “John” who says of himself that “I wept and wept profusely because no one was found to have what it takes to open the scroll or to look into it”? (5:4). Most interpreters do not think that he is the Beloved Disciple of the Gospel of John, and many do not believe that the Beloved Disciple in “John” is John, the son of Zebedee. I belong to the minority that answers both in the affirmative: John of Patmos is the Beloved Disciple of the Gospel, and that John is the son of Zebedee. I wish I could have included my painstaking argument in my commentary (I had to leave it out), and I am sorry I cannot share it here.

But we can reflect on meanings if the John of Revelation is identical to the Beloved Disciple in John. In Revelation, he weeps profusely (5:4). Over what? Can we extrapolate meanings from John’s tears to the character of the scroll?

Is he weeping because there is no one who can foretell the future?

Is he weeping because he is afraid that he won’t be saved?

Is he weeping for himself?

If he is John the Beloved Disciple and the son of Zebedee, these options seem implausible. John knows enough not to be anxious about the future (John 14:1-3). He knows enough about God not to be anxious about his salvation — he is the one who was resting his head in the lap of Jesus at the supper (John 13:23; 21:20). He, who rested his head in the lap of Jesus at the supper, also knows that Jesus is the one who rests his head in the lap of the Father (John 1:18). Such stunning images of familiarity, intimacy, and trust make it difficult to understand his tears. Has he forgotten? Is he performing a role? If he is performing, he deserves an Oscar!

The problem disappears if we see John’s tears not in relation to himself but in relation to the crisis in the heavenly council (in theology-speak: a crisis of theodicy). There is an unbridged and possibly unbridgeable gap between God and the convictions of the members of the heavenly council. And then — what is their problem? Are they in need of knowledge of the future for the crisis to be resolved? Are they worried about their salvation? Neither of these options works if we look at reality from the point of view of the heavenly council.

Meanwhile, John weeps and weeps.

Joy or sorrow are not tied only to knowledge of the future or assurance of salvation. If John is the Beloved Disciple of the Gospel, he is aware of other joys (and sorrows). At the point when the popularity of John the Baptist is about to be eclipsed by the rising popularity of Jesus, John (the Baptist) explains to his dejected disciples, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him’” (John 3:27-28). And then he shows what the other joy is. “He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled” (John 3:29-30).  

Joy over the joy of the Other! Joy over the Other’s success! That kind of joy!

Does this work in the context of Revelation? It does — but in Revelation the emotional state is grief. John’s tears are not tears wept for himself — or about the future, or about assurance of salvation. They are tears of grief over God’s predicament. “The friend of the bridegroom” will do no less, be it joy or sorrow.

P.S. (Answering the Mail)

I have looked at some of the comments to my postings. My weekly submissions are two kinds, one early in the week on specifics in the text and one later in the week that I call a TIMEOUT. For the first kind, I approach the text with the priority I have set for myself in my work as a reader of Bible texts: I read in the company of “uninitiated” readers. I know that the actual audience of these comments for the most part is Seventh-day Adventist, but my implied audience is not. On actual exegesis, I offer to the SDA reader what I believe should be offered to anyone.

In my TIMEOUT reflections, I deviate from this commitment. I comment on issues related to how Seventh-day Adventists read Revelation with reference to the Quarterly. These reflections have generated more comments than the others. I wish it were the other way around, but it is not surprising.

I question the wisdom of the term “historicism.” I don’t think Daniel or John were “historicists” although I believe that they describe real history. For John, history is the arena where the cosmic conflict unfolds and is ultimately resolved. In this TIMEOUT, I have suggested a reading of Daniel that is missing in interpretations that stress history.

“Old Historicism” refers chiefly to the interpretation offered by Uriah Smith. He does not stand alone in this “tradition.” Unfolding the Revelation by Roy Allan Anderson (1974) is perhaps the latest of “old” historicist readings.

“New Historicism” refers to interpretations that became ascendant at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary from about 1970 onwards. New Historicism preserves much of the Old Historicism with respect to Revelation 13, but it differs on points quite critical to the historicist project. New Historicism takes Revelation’s allusions to the Old Testament much more seriously than did the “Old.” This is a great leap forward, but it comes with a risk. Revelation has a cosmic perspective that is not found in Deuteronomy. (More about this next week.) New Historicism proposes different fulfillments for the time periods and the events, most notably for the trumpets. Disagreement about such specifics puts at risk the historicist claim that John predicted specific events. New Historicism detects a logic or dynamic in history that is strongly theological and that is far less apparent in the historicism of Uriah Smith. You can see it here, in these quotes from this week’s Quarterly.

The events of the seven seals must be understood in the context of the Old Testament covenant curses, specified in terms of sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts (Lev. 26:21–26). Ezekiel calls them God’s “four severe judgments” (Ezek. 14:21, NKJV).

The scenes of the seven seals portray the future of the church. As was the case with the seven churches, the seals correlate to the different periods in Christian history. During the apostolic times, the gospel rapidly spread throughout the world. This expansion was followed by the period of persecution in the Roman Empire, from the end of the first century to the beginning of the fourth century, as portrayed in the scene of the second seal. The third seal points to the period of compromise of the fourth and fifth centuries, which was characterized by a spiritual famine caused by a lack of the Bible and its truths, leading to the “Dark Ages.” The fourth seal aptly describes the spiritual death that characterized Christianity for nearly a thousand years.

What is the theological logic of the seals? The Quarterly understands them as “covenant curses” along the lines found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. They suggest a punitive dynamic that puts Revelation’s cosmic message at risk, especially the perception that there was a crisis in the heavenly council. In the fifth seal, the martyrs decry the absence of action on God’s part. Have they not understood the meaning of the previous seals — that they are “covenant curses” meant to hold to account those who commit evil?  The practical, communicative cost of the “theological logic” is enormous. By the logic of Deuteronomy, suffering is proof of sin. When Martin Luther wrote On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), he used this logic to explain the plight of the Jews. They were under God’s “covenant curses”; they were suffering because they had “rejected the gospel.” Perhaps the theological logic expressed in the Quarterly worked in the days of Uriah Smith (he did not use it). It will not work now — for obvious historical, human, and relational reasons.

Revelation is the foremost New Testament book of theodicy. Its counterpart in the Old Testament is the Book of Job. In Job, it is the good man who suffers. All parties to his suffering are scrambling for a new explanatory paradigm. As David Clines puts it, “The causal nexus of the retributive principle has been unalterably broken for Job — and for all those of his readers who side with him in his battle against heaven, which means almost every single one.” Does the New Testament book of theodicy revert to the logic of Deuteronomy, logic that Job picks apart?

A few responders have commented on my relation to “the Larger View” of A. Graham Maxwell, who was for many years a beloved Bible teacher at Pacific Union College and Loma Linda University. It has happened to me before. In 2011, after I gave a presentation on the cosmic conflict in Revelation at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University, the first (or one of the first) question(s) after my presentation was this, “What is your relation to Graham Maxwell?” (read: “a lawyer stood up to test him”). In that audience, it was an effective take-down, ad hominem. I was mortified, speechless, stymied, and defeated.

I did not know what to say then, and I still don’t. I am prepared to share how I understand Romans or Revelation. Or explain my preoccupation with the Holocaust, or my view of the Bible and ecology, or the Bible and politics (without hyperbole). The latter topics were not in vogue in the sheltered space of Loma Linda in the days of Graham Maxwell. He was an important voice in the church — many Loma Linda physicians talk wistfully about the Bible studies they had at Dr. Hinshaw’s house in the sixties. But that was then. This is now. I don’t know you because I knew your teachers — or your teacher because I know you. The theological lines of demarcation in the Adventist community have closed off much needed communication.

Let’s say it again: this is now.


Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019


Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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