Eschatological Detective and Interpretive Clues

This post is an excerpt from an upcoming book called, “The Last Act in the Drama: A Guide to the End-Times.” The blog is teaching the skills needed to interpret eschatological passages in the Scripture by acute observation, finding “interpretive clues,” and weaving the observations and clues into a cohesive whole. rmb 4/21/2021.

Sherlock Holmes is probably the most well-known detective of all time. He is a master of solving with apparent ease mysteries that completely baffled others and that seemed to have no solution. What was it that made Sherlock Holmes so remarkably successful? I would suggest that his brilliance was attributed to three specific skills: 1) Acute powers of observation that allow him to see details which others have missed or ignored; 2) the skill to turn observations into meaningful clues; and 3) the ability to put the clues together to create a cohesive picture that reveals the solution to the mystery.

As we are considering the study of biblical eschatology and are attempting to solve the “mysteries” of difficult texts, we will discover that there are parallels between the way Sherlock Holmes solved nefarious mysteries and the way we will interpret the meaning of end-times passages.

THREE SPECIFIC SKILLS

Like our friend Sherlock, we, too, will need three specific skills.

ACUTE OBSERVATION

First, the eschatological detective needs acute powers of observation. We should look high and low in the text for possible clues that might reveal interpretation and meaning. No detail should be ignored, at least initially, as we dig into the passage. If we have training in the original languages, the Greek or Hebrew/Aramaic texts should be examined. Our observation must be unbiased as we approach the text. This is especially critical in eschatology. We should not come to the text with a preconceived idea of what it means or of what clues we are going to find there. Instead, we approach it like a detective coming to a fresh crime scene.

INTERPRETIVE CLUES

You might ask, “What are we looking for?” I am glad you asked! We are looking for “interpretive clues.” In breathing out the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit has written into the text a variety of clues that allow the meaning of these end-times passages to be discerned. The following are some examples of “interpretive clues:”

  • Identical words and especially identical phrases that appear in two different places in a book. There are many examples of this type of interpretive clue, especially in Revelation, and these clues are vital to understanding how one section of the book relates to another. “A short time” is in Rev. 12:12, and also in 20:3. The same idea is in Revelation 6:11, “a little while.” This common phrase connects these passages. Another example is the phrase “gather them together for the war” in Rev. 16:14, and the identical phrase appears in Rev. 20:8, while “assembled (their armies) to make war” is in Rev. 19:19. This clue reveals that these passages are describing the same event. These are probably the most powerful interpretive clues, so be alert for these.
  • Symbolic use of colors and numbers in the book of Revelation. The color white is always used to indicate purity and righteousness and is identified with Jesus Christ. Red is associated with Satan. The number “thousand” is not used literally but is symbolic for a large number. Twelve is symbolic for the Old Testament people of God (the twelve tribes) and for the New Testament people of God, the faithful church (the twelve apostles). Seven is the number of completion or perfection (seven lampstands, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc.). Be alert, then, for symbolic use of numbers.
  • Similar characteristics used to describe different characters. This type of clue may be the most subtle, but it is also powerful. When you are reading a passage in, say, Daniel chapter 7, and the character described sounds very similar to the character from, say, 2 Thessalonians, the radar should go up and you should think, “interpretive clue!” These similar characteristics are probably not describing multiple characters but are probably describing the same figure. In this way, we get multiple “snapshots” of this end-times’ figure so he is easier to identify when he appears.

CONNECT THE CLUES TO FORM A COHESIVE WHOLE

So, those are some of the interpretive clues to look for, but what do we do with these interpretive clues once we have gathered them? This introduces the third skill, which is the art of connecting the interpretive clues to create a cohesive picture of a passage or an entire book. Having gathered our clues, we now need to assign meaning to the clues so that we can understand the end-times passage. Some questions to ponder during this part of the investigation are these:    

  • What is the best understanding of the symbols in this passage? What do these symbols mean?
  • When will the events in this passage occur? Or have they already occurred? Discerning the correct sequence of events is critical to end-times study, particularly in Revelation.
  • What are all the clues and texts about this subject and how do they fit together? If you are trying to figure out the meaning of some figure in the end-times, like, for example, the 144,000 (Rev. 7:1-8; 14:1-5), it is important to locate all the texts about that subject.
  • Is this passage continuous, or are there time-gaps in the passage?
  • Is this passage written in chronological order, or does it jump forward or backward in time?
  • Are these numbers to be understood literally or figuratively? What do these numbers mean?

There are many other questions that we could ask, but the point is that by asking these types of questions, gradually, like a doctor developing a diagnosis, we develop an interpretation of the passage or the section or the book. “This is what this means based on my understanding of the meaning of these interpretive clues.” Then, before we reveal our solution to others, we must test our solution to be sure it does not have inconsistencies. Like a jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces need to fit together.

PUTTING THESE SKILLS TO WORK

This, then, is the work of the end-times detective. We enter the text with our most concentrated observation, and we search for interpretive clues. Then we weave these clues and observations together into a cohesive whole that gives us a picture of how God is going to glorify Himself through the bodily return of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ and through the people that Christ has purchased with His blood on the cross. The Bible’s end-times passages give ample opportunity to put these skills to profitable use so that we are edified, and Christ is exalted.

SDG                 rmb                 4/21/2021

Eschatology: Entering a new culture

Reading biblical eschatology, especially in books like Revelation and Daniel, is like being a stranger in a foreign country. The Bible student is suddenly immersed in a confusing culture of strange language and unfamiliar customs and alien sights and sounds. All that they have learned and experienced in their native country is of little value as they try to make sense of the new environment.

What is the student of eschatology to do? The student must study end-times literature (“eschatology” = study of last things) with the humility of a traveler going to a foreign land, having the attitude of an observant learner. Here is what this looks like:

“Oh, wait! I have heard that phrase before. That seems to be an important phrase. I wonder what that means.”

“Now, wait a minute. When my host said this word, that happened. So, that word must mean this.” And so on, through countless iterations, the learning continues.

As time goes on, the traveler develops theories about the language and the culture, and then begins testing those theories to see if they are true. “Let me see. I think this means that. Does this mean that? Oops! Awkward moment! No, maybe this doesn’t mean that.” Gradually, step by step the culture begins to make sense. Words that were once strange become familiar and useful. Sights and sounds that were once alien and confusing become normal.

Time and humble observation are the keys. Couple humble observation with a system for capturing and connecting your observations and, over time, you will understand the culture. If you are humble and patient and diligent, you may eventually be mistaken for a native.

But notice that with eschatology, as with a foreign culture, you are required to adopt it. You do not impose your views on it, but you patiently and humbly conform to this unusual, unfamiliar, God-breathed Scripture, as you adopt it as your own. In other words, you do not conform the inspired Word to your ideas, but rather you allow the Word to teach you its ideas. In our analogy, the Word is the native, and we are the foreigners.

To give a personal example, I moved to Russia in January of 1997 to begin what turned out to be three years of “missionary” work with the Navigators, a US-based parachurch organization. I lived in a small town called Pushkin outside of St. Petersburg. I immediately entered a foreign culture where I could not talk (I did not speak Russian at the time) and where I had difficulty walking, since the streets were covered with ice and snow. If I had entered that environment resolved to teach the people of Pushkin how to speak English and to convey to them the pleasures of peanut butter, I think that I would have been frustrated. A better approach was to resolve to learn Russian and to try to walk on ice and to eat what they eat and to adopt their culture as my own. By God’s grace, that is what happened.

You can see the analogy with eschatology. Perhaps one of the reasons why Americans have difficulty with understanding eschatology is that most Americans have never had to adopt a foreign culture. That means most Americans have never been through the process of humble observation needed to change their perspective and to see things through a different lens. But eschatology is not like gospel or like narrative history or like Psalm or Proverbs. When studying eschatology, you must adopt the culture of eschatology or you will remain a foreigner and the culture of eschatology will be forever confusing.

SDG                 rmb                 2/17/2021