Harry Whittaker
Revelation - A Biblical Approach

Chapter 9 - The General Principles of Interpretation of Revelation

The visions accompanying the opening of the Seals in Revelation 6 immediately provoke a problem of first-rate importance. Whilst the general symbolism of the Seals (or of some of them!) may be easy of interpretation, e.g. Seals 2, 3, 4 clearly signify War, Famine, Pestilence - to what particular events does the series refer? For without question, the details of some of the Seals are of such a precise and particular character as to make it certain that they have reference to specific events.

Working on this principle, John Thomas and others have suggested an impressive correspondence between the Seals (and also succeeding sections of Revelation) and certain epochs of Roman and Church history, a correspondence running right through the Trumpets, Beast Visions and Vials to the titanic events associated with the coming of the Lord.

Whilst there may be places where the equation of prophecy and history staggers somewhat, there can be no question that in general the way in which the one answers to the other is impressive. Viewed even in the most unsympathetic fashion, it has to be granted that this is hardly likely to be accident. But it is necessary to point out a fact much overlooked, so much overlooked, indeed, that at first some will be loth to believe the truth of it. This "continuous-historic" method of interpreting Revelation is, of necessity, un-Biblical.

What is meant by this seemingly radical statement is this: When a prophecy like Revelation is considered in detail, its symbols interpreted in a reasonable fashion, and the prophecy then given an application to certain epochs in world history, there cannot - from the very nature of the case - be any Biblical warrant for so doing. The only sanction available lies in a resemblance between a piece of history (say, for the sake of argument, some particular phase of the Holy Roman Empire) and the interpretation that has been put on the symbols of a certain portion of Revelation. There is no known hint in the Bible saying either explicitly or in veiled fashion: "This part of the prophecy concerns the Holy Roman Empire."

In order that this point may be seen more clearly, contrast might well be made with Daniel ch. 2, where the various parts of the Image are given a definite Biblical interpretation in the same chapter, an interpretation that is completely beyond criticism (vv. 37 45). Or, again, consideration might be given to some of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, which without any doubt whatever should be applied to the work, and experience of Jesus because Jesus or his apostles say so in the New Testament.

Thus, whilst it is possible in the study of a great many Old Testament prophecies to have one's feet planted on the solid foundation of New Testament authority, from the very nature of the case this is not possible with the "continuous-historic" method of interpreting Revelation. At the same time it has to be insisted that lack of Biblical confirmation does not at all constitute disproof. And certainly the resemblances between history and this particular scheme of interpretation of Apocalyptic symbol should not be dismissed with an airy wave of the hand. Those inclined to consign them to the wastepaper basket should think carefully.

But it has to be said that even the warmest enthusiasts for the continuous historic exposition must admit, and usually do so concede, that the results of this approach are somewhat unequal. For example, most students find the historic link-up of Revelation 11, 12 less satisfactory than other sections of the prophecy. But this does not necessarily mean that the rest is of no consequence.


Next, attention must focus, and must remain focussed, on a big fact concerning Revelation which - to one's lasting surprise - has been almost completely ignored in the standard interpretation of the middle section of Revelation. This big (biggest!) fact about Revelation is that the entire book from beginning to end is a masterly mosaic of quotations from and allusions to the rest of the Bible. Approximately 500 of these have been catalogued in Westcott and Hort's Greek Testament. The present writer is certain that this hopelessly underestimates the true figure.

In the rest of Scripture the citation of or allusion to earlier parts of the Bible is normally taken as an inspired directive as to how such a passage should be interpreted. Jesus applied Isaiah 61 to his own work of redemption; therefore Isaiah 61 must be given an interpretation on these lines. In Romans 15 Paul quotes Isaiah 11:1, 10 applying the words to the gospel concerning Christ; therefore the conscientious exponent of the Word must follow where Paul has led. Peter and Paul both apply to Christ the two Isaiah prophecies of the stone of stumbling and the chief corner stone (Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16; 1 Peter 2:6, 8; Romans 9:33); therefore the Holy Spirit intended these as prophecies of Jesus. One might go further and note Matthew's use of "Rachel weeping for her children" (Matthew 2:18; Jeremiah 31:15) and infer - though with what reluctance this is done by some! - that Jeremiah 31 should also be read as having definite Messianic content. Alas! Instead, too many students of such Scriptures are over-ready to confess the ignorance of the inspired writer rather than their own. It is seriously to be doubted whether there is a single page of the New Testament without Old Testament links of this kind.

All these various echoes of the rest of Scripture to be encountered in Revelation, and especially in the middle section of it now about to be attempted, are to be regarded as so many hints as to what the various parts of the prophecy are about. Here is a lead to the interpretation of Revelation, which is too valuable to leave ignored. Even with this guiding principle difficulties abound. But a patient attempt on these lines to integrate Revelation with the rest of Scripture instead of regarding it as something altogether separate and distinct is bound to bring big results.


It can be said right away that in the main the use of the rest of the Bible to elucidate Revelation leads to the emphatic conclusion that practically all the book from chapter 6 onwards applies either (1) to the grim events associated with the fall of Jerusalem in AD. 70 and God's rejection of Israel, or else (2) to the great events prior to and contemporary with the return of the Lord, or else (3) to both.

Thus, both method and results in this study will prove to be drastically different from those of the familiar continuous-historic interpretation yet neither need exclude it. Since Scripture presents many instances of prophecies framed by the wisdom of God in such a way as to anticipate accurately in the same words two or more widely separated crises-in the divine programme (see chapter 8), there need be no difficulty whatever in the idea of yet another fulfilment of Revelation on the lines suggested here, in addition to the scheme made familiar through "Eureka." (In this study emphasis wil1 not be put on the continuous-historic scheme simply because it has already been set out elsewhere fully and completely).


The considerations just advanced illuminate and are themselves illuminated by the opening words of the Apocalypse: "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy." Why the special blessing which understanding of Revelation is to bring?

Firstly, because Revelation is so much dependent on the rest of the Bibl' that he who would understand it must first understand the rest of Scripture In other words, the one who hears (i.e. understands) this Book is special, blessed because he must first have profited richly from the rest of the Word of God.

Secondly, if the view to be advanced in this study is correct, then in ever, age the devout and faithful reader of the Apocalypse has found and will find strong confirmation of his faith. The early Christian of the First Century would see how much of its vivid symbolism was fulfilled in A.D. 70. The brother of Christ, tenaciously holding to truth amidst error in the Twentieth Century, is able to discern that much, which the Book reveals, may be this modern world's experience at almost any moment. And the obscure faithful remnant at any epoch throughout the ages would be able, in whatever generation, to find some part of this divine panorama passing under hi gaze from prophecy to history.

So, then, the exposition, which follows, will be, in the main, a Biblical exposition, seeking to follow the directives supplied by the copious link with other parts of Scripture. Now and then, to emphasize (rather than prove) the A.D. 70 application, there will be reference to First Century history, chiefly to Josephus, who is invaluable here. And to point the imminence of the final and great fulfilment in the Last Days some attempt will be mad to spot-light the relevance of those Apocalyptic prophecies to the Twentieth Century. The present writer is convinced that there is need of only little patience before a truly startling fulfilment of some of these things through current affairs becomes plain and undeniable.
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