This article is excerpted from Symposium on Revelation, Book 1, (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), Chapter I, "Foundation Principles of Interpretation," pp. 19-22
By Kenneth A. Strand
Two special questions arise in view of apocalyptic's "horizontal continuity": (1) In apocalyptic prophecy, is there such a thing as repeated fulfillments? (2) Does the historical portrayal in apocalyptic envisage a tentativeness or conditionality, so that if conditions were to change, the historical fulfillments would likewise change?
Repeated fulfillments? In previous discussions* on apocalyptic I have noted that there is a certain "philosophy-of-history" perspective in this kind of prophecy. By "philosophy-of-history," however, I do not mean the "value-philosophy" approach that sets forth philosophical considerations or "ideals" without touching historical reality. It must be emphasized that apocalyptic prophecy deals with real events and developments in the historical continuum, from the prophet's time onward to the end of time. Any approach that divorces fulfillment of apocalyptic forecasts from real history goes contrary to the very essence of apocalyptic historical portrayal.
The kind of "philosophy-of-history" to which I call attention has a certain kind of recurring application. We will first look for evidences and/or illustrations of the phenomenon; and second, we will note the type of material to which the phenomenon is applicable.
Although the evidence is not so clear-cut, this kind of literature does contain some indications of the concept that "history repeats itself."
In the noncanonical apocalypses, for example, Baruch's parable of the thundercloud divides its historical continuum into alternately "clear" and "inky" periods. There is, indeed, an almost "sing-song" pattern of historical repetition. In the canonical book of Daniel, the rise and fall of kingdoms conveys the same thought with regard to repetitiveness in history, especially so in view of the undergirding statement that God "removes kings and sets up kings" (Dan 2:21).
The concept is expressive of the "blessings-and-cursings" formulary of Deuteronomy (27-28) and finds graphic illustration in Israel's own history. This is well illustrated, for example, in the book of Judges. Whenever Israel failed in its covenant commitment, oppression by foreign nations resulted. Deliverance came whenever Israel turned to the Lord in sincere repentance. Although each instance was a different episode, with a different judge leading the deliverance, the kind of historical phenomenon in each case was the same. Thus, it may be said that Israelite "history repeated itself" in principle, though not in specific detail.
In the book of Revelation we find similar suggestions of repetitive patterns, such as in the four-three division within various septets. One may think, for example, of the striking similarities found in the letters to Ephesus and Sardis and again in those to Smyrna and Philadelphia (the first and fifth churches and the second and sixth churches, respectively, in Revelation 2-3).
Furthermore, the very manner in which symbolism is used in Revelation implies at times a repeated (and possibly a continuous) application. Particularly impressive is the expression in Revelation 11:8 - "the great city which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their [the two witnesses'] Lord was crucified." Here we find three places (Sodom, Egypt, Jerusalem) brought together and identified in such a way as to carry our minds back to events both in the distant past and in much closer time. These events were also separated geographically.
What this text tells us is not that there is going to be a second or even a third fulfillment of Sodom or multiple fulfillments of the ancient Egypt that held Israel in oppression. Rather, the message is that these three distinct entities can be identified in a sort of "togetherness" as to their underlying character of wickedness and oppression. Hence, they can fittingly serve in a symbolic way for the "great city" that embodies and repeats a similar character of wickedness and oppression.
The beasts of Daniel and Revelation come into existence once and once only. Their kind of service as vehicles for Satan's attack upon God and God's saints may readily, however, lead to a repetition of the general processes used, whether these are deceptions or persecutions (see John 8:44). But no apocalyptic prophecy is understood to embody dual or multiple fulfillments in itself.
Conditionality in apocalyptic? In recent private writings the claim is made that there is conditionality in the historical forecasts of apocalyptic books such as Revelation. The argument is that fulfillments long held as genuine were only partial ones - if fulfillments at all - because certain conditions were not met. Hence, we can look for a yet-future fulfillment. Items that have been placed in this category are the great earthquake, Dark Day, and falling of the stars (Revelation 6:12-17), the end of Daniel's 2300-day prophecy, other time periods in Daniel and Revelation, and the apocalyptic portrayal of history even more generally.
What must be said first in response to this approach is that the principles enunciated above regarding historical portrayal in apocalyptic prophecy hold true for this question as well as for that of "repeated fulfillment." Those principles allow no room whatever for default in the fulfillment or postponement of the apocalyptic forecast because of conditionality.
In short, apocalyptic prophecy sets forth a historical progression that allows no room for variability, as God foretells what "must shortly come to pass" (Rev 1:1, KJV). There is, for example, no question whether the four horsemen of Revelation 6 are going to ride; they will indeed go forth in the progression indicated. The same holds true with the trumpet warnings, the plagues of doom, the destruction of Babylon, etc. These are all things that John is shown and told would happen. There simply is no element of contingency involved!
One may argue, however, that there is an element of conditionality in the letters to the seven churches. This is indeed so. The whole concept of these letters has conditionality as an underlying frame of reference. But this particular conditionality does not relate to the historical portrayal of the churches' situations, but to how the churches and individuals in them will respond to Christ's appeal, how they will decide to stand in the future regarding their covenant relationship with the Lord.
The hortatory nature of epistolary literature comes to the fore here. The fact that the book of Revelation is a letter as well as an apocalyptic prophecy gives it a certain flavor of exhortation. But this exhortation, it must be emphasized, is limited to appeals (wherever found in the book, see 16:15, for an example) and does not apply to the specific type of prophetic forecast that is part and parcel of the nature of apocalyptic literature. The book of Daniel, too, has elements of conditionality in its historical sections and in any appeals that are made.
However, in neither Daniel nor Revelation is the prophetic forecast itself subject to conditionality. The events are fixed and the prescribed time periods are definite and invariable. These elements fit the patterns of what Daniel said to King Nebuchadnezzar: "God has made known to the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure" (Dan 2:24).
*Strand, Interpreting the Book of Revelation, 14-16; and somewhat more fully in id., Perspectives in the Book of Revelation (Worthington, OH, 1975), 29-32.