How different the man who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High! He explores the wisdom of the men of old and occupies himself with the prophecies; He treasures the discourses of famous men, and goes to the heart of involved sayings; He studies obscure parables, and is busied with the hidden meanings of the sages.
Most people do not need a lot of convincing that there are parts of the Bible that are hard to understand.
Instead, many people need a bit of encouragement to believe that we can discover the meanings of the more obscure Biblical passages without descending into arbitrariness, untrustworthy guesswork and speculation, or simply accepting it on the authority of someone who claims to know, without seeing for ourselves what sense it makes. The purpose of these posts is to give the principles that will allow each of us to read and interpret the Book of Revelation in a way that is faithful to its inspired meaning.
Being faithful to the meaning of Scripture does not mean that whatever first pops into our heads when we see the words is the true meaning. We saw in the Vatican II Constitution Dei Verbum that the proper reception of Holy Scripture means not only that faith receives the Scriptures as the Word of God, but also that we should be attentive to the literary form in the Scriptures and attentive to the Spirit by whom the Scripture was written. Interpretation in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it means attention to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, the living tradition of the whole Church, and the analogy of faith, that is, how the truths of the faith fit together coherently.
So if the kind of writing is a report of a prophetic vision, we had better read it in a way appropriate to a report of a prophetic vision. Most of us have no practical experience of interpreting prophetic visions other than what we learn from the Bible. But that’s okay, because the Word of God itself teaches us what this interpretation should look like, in the many passages where a person inspired by God gives his authoritative interpretation of a prophecy.
This is where the need for faith comes in, because in order to go where the sacred text is pointing us we will have to begin our thinking from things we can only know because we believe them in faith. For starters, we believe in faith that prophecy is not merely a literary fiction expressing the writer’s own religious aspirations, but a real gift given by a God who actually exists and reveals himself by means of the prophecy. Furthermore, we will take the prophet’s or the sacred author’s interpretation of the prophecy as authoritative because we believe in faith that the Church’s Scriptures are in fact the word of God. Additionally, we accept that one book of Scripture really can help us interpret another book even though the sacred authors and the books they write are very diverse in culture, historical setting, and personal characteristics, because the same Holy Spirit who works through each of them is the primary author of all.
But the Christian faithful need not be daunted at the idea of interpreting the imposing prophecies in the Book of Revelation, because Scripture gives us a veritable academy of prophetic interpretation. Our “professors” in this school will be Moses, Joseph, St. Paul, St. John, Daniel the Prophet, Gabriel the Archangel, and Our Lord Jesus Christ. Could we possibly do any better than to take them as our teachers? This sounds to me like an all-star faculty.
Next time we will begin our lessons by sitting at the feet of Joseph.
Image: Salvador Dali, The Endless Enigma