Friday, January 27, 2012

Revelation as History

History is fundamentally an exercise in hindsight, and, if you believe the old adage, it is always written by the winners. It is, at its heart, a looking back on the past in an effort to order it and interpret it based on a more perfect knowledge. The historian knows who wins and who loses, and can make judgment based on that knowledge. History, for example, allows us to see from the beginning what never could have been known at the outset of the Civil War, that the Union would prevail and that American society would be committed to personal over corporate liberty and national government over state governments.

It has been sometime since I finished my little devotional commentary on Revelation, and I think enough time has passed that I can safely muse about the book once again. It seems to me that the purpose of Revelation may best be understood by reading the book not as prophecy or even as the narrative of a past mystical experience but as history. Revelation takes the reader into the future (or, perhaps more accurately, into the eternity of God) in order to look at the past. (Of course, whether this is the past in a preterist or a historicist or an idealist sense is up for debate.) We are granted the perfect knowledge of a God who stood not only at the beginning of history but who is already standing atemporally at its end. Armed with that knowledge, we can look back at "the past," which includes our present, with the kind of "objective," critical eye that historians look at the past. We can know that God and His righteouness will prevail. We can know that our own deeds will be subject to judgment. We can know that a horrible defeat (more horrible than Sherman marching to see, for certain) awaits the devil and his cohorts.

It is history at its finest and its most ironic. It is wonderful because it allows us to look back into the past with a knowledge more perfect and more comprehensive than even the most learned historians. It leaves no ambiguity about the outcome; it has all the certainty of decided fact. Yet it teases our minds because the "past" which it writes so authoritatively about is not only our past, but our present and our future. It cannot properly be called prophecy because it does not say, "I predict this will happen" or even assume a tone of anticipation. It is history because it declares frankly, from the perspective of transcendent eternity, "This is what happens." Live accordingly.

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