This post is part of my upcoming book on the end-times, The Last Act of the Drama, and attempts to answer the question, “Do we need to understand all the details to get the meaning of an end-times passage?”
In this chapter, we examine one of the most mysterious visions in Revelation in the hopes of answering the question, “Must I grasp all the details of a passage to understand the meaning of a passage?”
“Do I need to understand all the details to understand the meaning of a 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 may be little in the context to enlighten our understanding. Usually in Scripture, the unknowns in the text can be deduced by looking at the greater context or by considering other biblical passages, but in eschatology, there are times when the entire context is confusing and yields no solid, unambiguous starting point. An example would be something like Revelation 9:16-19:
16 The number of the armies of the horsemen was two hundred million; I heard the number of them. 17 And this is how I saw in the vision the horses and those who sat on them: the riders had breastplates the color of fire and of hyacinth and of brimstone; and the heads of the horses are like the heads of lions; and out of their mouths proceed fire and smoke and brimstone. 18 A third of mankind was killed by these three plagues, by the fire and the smoke and the brimstone which proceeded out of their mouths. 19 For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails are like serpents and have heads, and with them they do harm.
Two hundred million horsemen? Hyacinth breastplates, and fire and brimstone coming out of the mouths of the horses? Heads like lions and tails like serpents? Is the “third of mankind” literal in 9:18? How are we supposed to make sense of all this?
NO NEED TO UNDERSTAND EVERY DETAIL
In passages like this one in 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 grasp their basic messages. The inspired Scriptures have been written so that God’s main message can be understood, even if some of the supporting details remain obscure. So, not knowing what a hyacinth breastplate is will not prevent you from understanding the message of the sixth trumpet warning in Revelation 9.
THE SUBJECTIVE ASPECT OF UNDERSTANDING SCRIPTURE
More, however, needs to be said about this statement to make it helpful in our study of eschatology. For while it is true that understanding every detail of a passage is not necessary for understanding the meaning of that passage, we still need to discover the meaning of the passage. What I mean is that, even if we do not worry about the hyacinth breastplates or “the tails like serpents with heads,” we are still faced with the task of figuring out what in the world this passage means. “Why has God placed this Scripture in His Word?” That is the question that ever confronts the Bible student. What makes understanding eschatology difficult is that it requires greater exegetical skills and a fuller grasp of the entire sweep of the Bible to confidently make decisions about the meaning of these complex passages. So, while God has breathed into His Scripture everything needed to understand it, there may not be enough there for me to understand it. That is, my current skill in understanding Scripture may be inadequate for me to discover the meaning of this passage. This subjective aspect to understanding Scripture comes into play more frequently in eschatology than in other genres of Scripture, because, again, there is generally more skill required in discovering the meaning of end-times passages.
So, will I ever understand all the mysteries?
MYSTERIES REMAIN HIDDEN
The fact is that it may not be possible for us to understand or explain everything that is happening in John’s visions or in 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.
RESIGN OURSELVES TO MYSTERY?
If we acknowledge that mysteries may remain until heaven, 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).