We continued our series on the book of Daniel this past weekend at Eastbrook Church by turning to Daniel’s famous prayer in chapter 9. Daniel’s prayer takes place in the first year of Cyrus’ reign, around 539 BC, and references Jeremiah 25:10-11 in recognizing that the time of the exile is reaching its conclusion. Daniel has been in exile for more than 60 years, but his imagination has not been closed in by the suffering of exile. Instead his prayer takes flight through an imagination set fire by the revelations of God.
After a weekend off due to sickness (thank you, Pastor Jim Caler, for covering for me last weekend!), I continued our series on the book of Daniel this past weekend at Eastbrook Church by turning to chapter 8, the second of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions.
Daniel 8 continues the apocalyptic visions of the second half of the book. As with my message on Daniel 7, “Faith in God Amidst the Beasts,” this message, “Faith Looking Forward,” engages our imagination through God’s inspired symbols and images of what is really going on in the midst of human history. Daniel has this vision during the third year of the reign of Belshazzar, the last of the Babylonian kings represented in Daniel, and thus it takes place chronologically before Daniel 5 and 6. We are introduced to figures that stand against God which both reflect the antichrist spirit and the future Antichrist figure that is to come.
Apocalyptic literature takes its name from the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis), which literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘unveiling.’ As some of us may already know, the last book of the Bible, translated with the title ‘Revelation,’ draws its name from the first word of the book, which is this very word ‘ἀποκάλυψις.’ Unfortunately, our reading of Revelation as speaking of the future often confuses us about apocalyptic literature in general.
Andrew Hill describes apocalyptic literature as:
‘crisis’ literature, typically conveying specific messages to particular groups of people caught in in dire situations. . . . Visionary literature announces an end to the way things are and opens up alternative possibilities to the audience as a result of God’s impending intervention in human affairs. Three types of messages are usually associated with the visionary literature of the Bible: (1) a message of encouragement to the oppressed; (2) a warning to the oppressor; and (3) a call to faith for those wavering between God’s truth and human ‘wisdom.’
Reality is often hidden from our ordinary perception, so apocalyptic literature unveils what is truly happening with the simultaneous aim of encouragement, warning, and exhortation. Apocalyptic is not primarily about the future; it is primarily about the cosmic reality underlying all of human history. This is why Daniel Block tells us that “the intention of apocalyptic is not to chart out God’s plan for the future so future generations may draw up calendars tub to assure the present generation that — perhaps contrary to appearance — God is still on the throne (cf. Dan 7:18, 21-22, 27; 8:25; 12:1-4), and that the future is firmly in his hands.”
What often leads us into the drafting of calendars and the drawing of charts from apocalyptic literature is the dramatic symbolism and the critique that does exist of kings and kingdoms. As adults, particularly in a results-oriented, project-management culture, we often lose our imagination about life. This diminishment of imagination ruins us for hearing the voice of God in the midst of apocalyptic. With apocalyptic literature in His hands, God wants to blow a hole in our stultified imagination so that we can see reality with apocalyptic eyes and consider reality with apocalyptic minds and hearts. Daniel, Ezekiel, and John the Revelator all stand as guides into the apocalyptic imagination necessary to live out our faith as exiles in a world and cultures where we are most definitely not at home.
Tremper Longman, in his commentary on Daniel, outlines six key themes of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions, found in the second half of the book:
- the horror of human evil, particularly as it is concentrated in the state
- the announcement of a specific time of deliverance
- repentance that leads to deliverance
- the revelation that a cosmic war stands behind human conflict
- judgment as certain for those who resist God and oppress his people
- the equally certain truth that God’s people, downtrodden in the present, will experience new life in the fullest sense
Those themes spin around like the wheels of Ezekiel’s visions in the metaphors and images, the dreams and the visions, of Daniel, chapters 7-12. As we read through those chapters we want to keep these themes in mind and let God enliven our imagination through what we encounter. While we should rightly grapple with what each symbol or metaphor represents, we also do not want to become rigorously attached to either outlining plans that are not clearly in the book or woodenly interpreting symbolism that intends to destabilize our ability comprehend. Instead, let us, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis’ description of how George MacDonald’s fantasy writing in Phantastes affected him, allow Daniel to “baptize our imagination” into grasping exilic faith with a force and freshness we have not yet known.
 Andrew E. Hill, “Daniel,” in Daniel-Malachi, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Rev. Ed., Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 131.
 Daniel I. Block, “Preaching Old Testament Apocalyptic,” CTJ 41/1 (2006), 52.
 Tremper Longman III, Daniel NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 178-179.
In her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes a chapter entitled “Apocalypse,” that sheds light on the journey we have been on at Eastbrook in our series, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith.” She begins with a quotation by poet Czeslaw Milosz: “I have lived in apocalyptic times, in an apocalyptic century . . . My work to a large extent belongs to that stream of catastrophist literature that attempts to overcome despair” (from an interview by Robert Faggen, “An Approval of Being,” in Books and Culture).
Not long ago, I found myself preaching to well over a thousand people on the apocalyptic texts in Daniel 12 and Mark 13. I would not have chosen to do this, but in a sense the words chose me. I use the lectionary when I preach; I find that it’s good discipline, as it forces me into situations such as this, having to confront hard Bible texts that I would just as soon skip over.
The literature of apocalypse is scary stuff, the kind of thing that can give religion a bad name, because people so often use it as a means of controlling others, instilling dread by invoking a boogeyman God. Thinking about the people who would be in church that morning, I knew that many of them would very likely be survivors of such painful childhood images of God and would find the readings hard to take. So I decided to talk about what apocalyptic literature is and is not. It is not a detailed prediction of the future, or an invitation to withdraw from the concerns of the world. It is a wake-up call, one that uses intensely poetic language and imagery to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence in and promise for the world.
The word ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek for ‘uncovering’ or ‘revealing,’ which makes it a word about possibilities. And while uncovering something we’d just as soon keep hidden is a frightening prospect, the point of apocalypse is not to frighten us into submission. Although it is often criticized as ‘pie-in-the-sky’ fantasizing, I believe its purpose is to teach us to think about ‘next-year-country’ in a way that sanctifies our lives here and now. ‘Next-year-country’ is a treasured idiom of the western Dakotas, an accurate description of the landscape that farmers and ranchers dwell in—next year rains will come at the right time; next year I won’t get hailed out; next year winter won’t set in before I have my hay hauled in for winter feeding. I don’t know a single person on the land who uses the idea of ‘next year’ as an excuse not to keep on reading the earth, not to look for the signs that mean you’ve got to get out and do the field work when the time is right. Maybe we’re meant to use apocalyptic literature in the same way: not as an allowance to indulge in an otherworldly fixation but as an injunction to pay closer attention to the world around us. When I am disturbed by the images of apocalypse, I find it helpful to remember the words of a fourth-century monk about the task of reading scripture as ‘working the earth of the heart,’ for it is only in a disturbed, ploughed-up ground that the seeds we plant for grain can grow.
[Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 318-319.]