The Basics: Understanding all the details in eschatology

This is one of a series of articles on what I am calling “The Basics” of end-times study. These are foundational concepts that help define the geography of eschatology. They are landmarks that help us get our bearings when we are entering an end-times passage.

Studying eschatology can be intimidating because, in any given end-times passage, there may be terms or expressions which we do not recognize and there is little in the context to give us a clue or to point us in a particular direction. In most genres of Scripture, the unknowns in the text can be deduced by looking at the context or by observing how similar words are used elsewhere in the Bible. In eschatology, however, there are times when the entire context is confusing, the words are used only in eschatological passages, and the contents of the passage yield no solid, unambiguous starting point. An example would be Revelation 9:13-19, where we read of four angels and two hundred million horsemen and hyacinth breastplates and fire and brimstone coming out of the mouths of the horses. How are we supposed to make sense of all this? (For the curious, the sixth trumpet is the most severe warning for the unrighteous telling of the fast-approaching final judgment and urging them to repent of their wickedness.)

In passages like the Revelation 9, the student of eschatology can take heart, because understanding every detail of a passage is not necessary for understanding the meaning of the passage. It is not necessary to unpack every single symbol in Revelation or Daniel or any end-times passage to understand their messages, and even to grasp the beauty of the individual visions and passages.


The fact is that it may not be possible for us to understand or explain everything that is happening in all of John’s visions or Daniel’s dreams. Those details may be things which the Lord, for His own purposes, has chosen to leave hidden from us. Even Daniel, who was specifically gifted by God to interpret dreams and visions (Daniel 1:17; 4:9; 5:11-12), did not fully understand what he had seen, even after he had been given an explanation by angels (Daniel 7:15-22, 28; 8:15-19, 27; 12:8). Humility would say that, if Daniel and John did not fully understand all they recorded, there is a more than even chance that I, too, will need to accept some degree of mystery. For His glory, God has written mysteries into His Bible that may remain hidden or unexplained until heaven, and we joyfully and humbly bow before these mysteries.


            If we acknowledge that mysteries may remain until heaven and that there are details beyond our grasp, does that mean that we give up trying to understand and interpret eschatology? Absolutely not! Despite the effort involved, the disciple of Jesus continues to explore and pray through these difficult passages because these, too, are breathed out by the God he loves and are profitable for equipping him for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

            SDG                 rmb                 3/15/2021

Humility in the face of God’s mystery (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Spending time exploring biblical eschatology is a humbling endeavor. The study of “last things” involves pouring over apocalyptic visions and confusing prophecies written in vague and unusual prose as the author describes things that seem beyond language’s ability to describe. After reading passages of Scripture literally dozens of times and then reluctantly scurrying to commentaries to find out “the right answers,” my common experience is to come away thinking, “Yeah, I think this commentator is guessing, just like me.”

Does anyone really understand this stuff,

or do they, like me, just make their best bluff?


            After about thirty years of consistent Bible reading and diligent Bible study, I have discovered this: Not everything that is written in the Word of God is meant to be fully understood. That is, there remain mysteries in the Bible. In writing His Scripture, God the Holy Spirit has inspired some passages whose meaning is intentionally hidden from us. Daniel in his prophecy and John in Revelation both confess that there are times when they did not understand all that they themselves saw and wrote.

Moses voices the same idea when he writes “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever (Deuteronomy 29:29).” Clearly, there are secret things that God has left as mysteries. Recently, I have been reading through Isaiah and am constantly awe-struck by the Scriptures he wrote. Did Isaiah really understand the meaning of these astonishing prophecies, or was he just obedient to what the Holy Spirit told him to write, even though his oracles were beyond his own comprehension?

            To display His glory, God has inspired His Bible to reveal everything necessary for His people to know Him and to serve Him, and to fear and love and worship and obey Him, while at the same time including passages whose meaning and understanding elude even the most diligent and learned of Bible students. This is not a mistake in editing, but is BY DESIGN, to confirm that the Bible is breathed out by God and contains writing that God alone can fully comprehend.


When the LORD confronts Job in chapter 38, the Creator asks the creature where he was when the LORD created the universe. At one point, the LORD says to Job, “Who shut in the sea with doors, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said,

‘Thus far shall you come and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?” – Job 38:8-11.

The LORD is sovereign over the oceans and has determined their exact limits. The “proud waves” must stop when He ordains and may not go farther.

He seems to be saying something similar about His Scriptures. We may read our Bible anytime and we are free to read it and study it as often as we like. We are to take great pleasure in reading God’s word and delight in it as precious treasure, but we must acknowledge that the Bible is God’s book, and that there will be times when our proud intellect will be humbled. While we are here on this earth, there will be times when we encounter mysteries which God has left in His Scriptures. When we encounter these passages, we can hear the Lord saying, “Thus far can you understand, but no farther, and here shall your proud intellect be stayed.” This is because not everything that is written in the Word of God is meant to be fully understood.


      Because the Bible contains mysteries, are we to despair of ever understanding it or are we to abandon our zeal in studying it? A resounding “no” on both counts! Although there are still parts and passages in God’s Word that lie beyond our comprehension, there is a lifetime of delight dwelling in its pages for our joy, for our reading pleasure and for our spiritual edification.

      The more earnestly and diligently you seek the treasures of the Bible, the more you will bring out of its limitless riches. So, the first key is to apply yourself to earnest and diligent study each time you open the Word. Consider the context of the passage. What is the main message of the text? Are there other passages of Scripture that may shed more light on this passage? If you have some knowledge of the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), explore those sources, and see if there is some nuance in these words. Mainly we must realize that reading and studying God’s Word deserves serious effort and we must be willing to work hard to draw out all we can from the text.

      At the same time, we must humbly realize that even our most earnest efforts will sometimes leave us confused or unclear about the full meaning of a psalm or a prophecy or even the full meaning of a narrative account. “What is going on here?” We should apply all our energy to understand all we can, but also be ready to humbly bow before the mysteries the Lord has left in His word.

      The main point in what I am saying is that there is a finite limit to how much of the Scriptures anyone can understand. That is, no matter how many times you read the Bible or even read a book of the Bible, there will always remain mysteries. The Bible is God’s book, and, as part of His stamp of authenticity, there are some things that no human can grasp.

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The LORD covered all their sin (Psalm 85:2-3)

The cross of Christ looms over the entire Bible. Ever since the fall, when Adam’s sin plunged man into sin and condemnation and death (Romans 5:12-19), the cross has been required. Man has fallen into sin, and now only the sacrificial death of the sinless Son of God can pay the price of our redemption.


            But for God’s people living before the incarnation of Jesus the Messiah and before the cross, God’s means of forgiveness was a mystery. Oh yes, it was evident that the LORD did forgive sin, but what was the basis for that forgiveness?

  • Isaiah 1:18 says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” But how is that possible? How can my scarlet sins become white as snow?
  • Psalm 103:12 declares, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He (the LORD) remove our transgressions from us.” For whom does the LORD do this? How can I be one of the ones for whom the LORD removes transgressions?
  • Micah 7:19 says, “He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” Who is the “us” and the “our” in this verse? How do I become a part of that group?
  • In fact, this mystery of forgiveness could call into question the justice of God. In Ezekiel 18:4, the prophet, speaking by the word of the LORD, says, “The soul who sins shall die.” That seems very clear, but then we read just a few verses later that if a wicked person turns from their sins, none of his transgressions will be remembered (18:21-23). Wait a minute! How did this sinner who should die get forgiven? Is it right for God to forgive great iniquity? How can God forgive ANY iniquity and remain just? How can God threaten to punish sin but then also not remember sin? What is the basis for His judgment or His forgiveness?
  • In 2 Samuel 12, after the prophet Nathan has confronted King David about his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his sin of arranging for the murder of Uriah, David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD (12:13a).” Now the Law required stoning to death with stones both for the sin of adultery and for the sin of murder. Yet the Scripture in 2 Samuel 12:13b says, “And Nathan said to David, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.’” Wait a minute again! That cannot be right. How can the LORD put away David’s two huge sins and still be a just Judge? If God’s Law requires stoning for a sin, how can David be acquitted after just voicing a simple confession?
  • And so, the cross as the means of God’s forgiveness of sins remained hidden from the Old Testament saints, even though the effects of the cross were scattered throughout the Scriptures. We come, then, to our study text, Psalm 85:2-3, which talks about forgiveness of sin and removal of wrath.


You forgave the iniquity of Your people; You covered all their sin.

You withdrew all Your wrath; You turned from Your hot anger.

            We will go through these short verses carefully and see how the cross answers the questions we have been asking, even though it had not been revealed to the psalmist and still lay centuries in the future.

  • You forgave the iniquity of Your people. From the Old Testament Law, we can see that every Iniquity “received a just retribution (Hebrews 2:2).” That means that iniquity requires punishment or an atoning sacrifice. To be forgiven, there must be some recompense or some atonement that removes the offense. So, the cross is implied here as the hidden means of atonement. Also note that all iniquity is forgiven. (It makes no sense grammatically or practically for the LORD to forgive some sins, for even one unforgiven sin is enough to condemn.)
  • You forgave the iniquity of Your people. A critical question is, “Who are ‘Your people’?” Theologically we know that forgiveness is specific. It applies to specific people when specific conditions are met. Here we see that the LORD forgave the iniquity of His people and it necessarily follows that He forgave no others. Since the only forgiven people are His people, it is incumbent on us to be part of His people or to become part of His people. From the Scriptures, we know that we become His people by faith (Hebrews 11) and that we are justified by faith (Galatians 2:16; etc.).
  • You covered all their sin. From the first half of this verse, we can see that this also applies only to the LORD’s people. When the LORD covers sin, He does so that it will be hidden from sight. David writes, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered (Psalm 32:1).” Since sin is an offense against the LORD (Psalm 51:4), and since the LORD is the supreme Judge, when He covers sin, that sin has been forgiven and forgotten. Since the cross punished all the sin of all of the LORD’s people, then the LORD can justly cover it.
  • You withdrew all Your wrath; You turned from Your hot anger. Sin is an offense against the Holy One, against the LORD our God, and the Lord responds to sin with wrath. Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” At the end of the age, Jesus Christ will return to “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (Revelation 19:15).” There must be some means whereby the LORD’s people can turn away the Lord’s wrath. But again, we find that the cross of Christ is the answer. For “Christ Jesus is whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith (Romans 3:25).” “Propitiation” is a theological word that here means to quench the wrath. By His death on the cross, Jesus has not only paid for our sins, but He has also satisfied the wrath of God that our sins provoked.


            Think of the greatness of the cross. All are in need of its benefits, because all have sinned, but all are also able to receive its benefits by faith. There is no ethnic or financial or social or physical barrier in your way. All are welcome to bow at the cross. The power of the cross extends into the future until the last of God’s elect comes to faith in Jesus, and it goes backward into the past, applying Jesus’ redeeming blood to all of the Lord’s people since the Garden of Eden. All who will ever be forgiven of sin are forgiven because of the cross.

            And what about those who are not the Lord’s people? What will become of them? A review of the verses just studied will answer the question. Their sins remain unforgiven and uncovered. The wrath that has been provoked by each one of their transgressions remains as furious as ever, and the hot anger of the Lord is still poured out on them. Those who are not the Lord’s people must turn from their sins and trust Christ for their salvation. “For there is salvation in no other name; for there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).”

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