There is a problem with such hermeneutical approaches. Perhaps an illustration will help us understand that problem. If we read the newspaper as if it were poetry or read a poem as if it were a financial report, we will miss the point of a text entirely. We instinctively know that. We know that in order to interpret any text correctly, we must understand its genre. However, what many Christians do with the prophetic portions of Scripture, especially the book of Revelation, is akin to reading the instructions for an electric coffee maker as if they were the lyrics to a folk song. We cannot expect to understand these texts if we do not know what they are.
Old Testament prophetic books contain oracles of judgment and oracles of blessing. In the preexilic prophetic books (e.g., Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah), most of the oracles addressed to the northern kingdom and then the southern kingdom are oracles of judgment. These oracles warn Israel that she has broken the terms of the covenant and that unless she repents, the curses of the covenant recorded in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, including exile from the land, will come upon her. As the impending exile approaches, the warnings of coming judgment become more definitive, but we also find more and more oracles of blessing, which point to a time of restoration after the coming judgment. Zephaniah presents us with a good example of both types of oracles. Zephaniah 1:1–2:3 contains some of the most striking oracles of coming judgment found in the prophetic books. The language used to describe Judah’s impending destruction is cosmic in scope. Zephaniah 3:9–20, on the other hand, is one of the most beautiful oracles of salvation found in the prophetic books.
Significantly, as a genre, oracles tend to use poetic language rather than prose, and Hebrew poetry is well known for its extensive use of figurative language and striking imagery. When we turn to the book of Revelation, we observe that John describes his book as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18–19). We should interpret it with this understanding of its genre. I like to call those who finally realize that the book of Revelation uses figurative language “Aha! Millennialists.” While I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is a serious point. When we begin to read Revelation in the way the original author intended it to be read, we can begin to understand its intended meaning. We no longer read with the book of Revelation in one hand and a newspaper in the other. The newspaper will not help us understand Revelation. Knowing the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament will help us understand it.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on December 10, 2018.