Interpreting the Symbols

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

How did Adventists arrive at the identification of the kingdoms represented by the symbols in the books of Daniel and Revelation?

In some cases this has not been difficult; but in others, much more so. It is important to be aware of the limitations and risks involved in interpreting those symbols. We must begin by establishing a proper method of interpretation, then discuss how to use it.
     I. Proper Method: Christians have used different methods to interpret the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Adventists have adhered to what is called a historicist system of interpretation.  According to this understanding, prophecies cover a broad outline of the history of God’s people from the time of the prophet to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.  This is the methodology provided to Daniel by an angel sent to interpret the vision of Daniel 7. The prophecy had to do with events that covered the historical period from the Babylon Empire to the time of the end (Dan. 7:38, 44). This approach was confirmed by Jesus, who indicated that the last part of the prophecy of Daniel 9 was going to be fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:15). Paul also understood the coming of the antichrist as a future event (2 Thess. 2:7-9). We have simply followed the biblical system of interpretation.
 2. Kingdoms Clearly Identified: The book of Daniel provides the historical application of the symbols. The angel interpreter told Daniel that four kingdoms were to rise on earth and the fifth one was going to be the kingdom of God. The angel identified by name three of the historical kingdoms: Babylon (Dan. 2:38), Medo-Persia (5:28; 8:20), and Greece (8:21). The fourth kingdom is not identified, but a detailed description of its nature and actions is provided (7:19-26). Jesus implied that it was Rome (Matt. 24:15, 16; Luke 21:20, 21). As long as we follow the biblical materials we are on safe ground. But many other symbols were not interpreted by the angel (e.g., the 10 horns, the little horn, two other beasts in Revelation 13, Babylon, etc.). How do we identify the prophetic fulfillment of those symbols?
3. Kingdoms Not Clearly Identified: What controls should we use to identify the broad outline of history found in the visions? We have to move from what is clearly revealed in the prophecies themselves to what is left historically undefined.
First, we have to realize that in Daniel 2 and 7 we have the most important outline of apocalyptic prophecy in both Daniel and Revelation. This prophetic backbone provides the indispensable historical outline to be used in fitting other apocalyptic prophecies and their fulfillments within history. We know that the fourth kingdom is Rome, according to the prophecy, that it would be divided, and that one of the small kingdoms—a political-religious power—would dominate the others. By about A.D. 200 Hippolytus interpreted the fourth beast as the Romans and the little horn as the antichrist.  Christian interpreters early in the Christian era continued to use the system of interpretation used by the angel interpreter to identify the historical fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecies.
Second, we pay attention to the chronology of events located in the prophecy itself.  For instance, Revelation 12 moves from an attack against the Child (Christ), to an attack against the woman (His church), and finally against the remnant (those alive when Jesus returns). Notice the historical progression.
Third, we examine historical events, taking into consideration the prophetic line of thought. History indicates that Satan attempted to destroy Jesus and persecuted the church. The remnant is located between Satan’s failure to destroy the woman after 1,260 years and the end-time attack against it. The eschatological role of the beast from the sea and the other from the earth (Rev. 13) takes place during the time of the remnant.
Finally, we should consider that history tends to reveal a self-correcting process that reaches its climax when the prophecies find their historical fulfillment.
Moving from the known to the unknown could easily take us into the dangerous zone of human speculation. We should use the same procedure employed by the angel interpreter, keeping in mind that prophecy only provides a general outline of what will take place as we approach the final days of earth’s history.