John Walton Cautions: Don’t “Mistake the Vision as the Message”

Reading apocalyptic literature is tricky. Often times we see elaborate explanations of the symbols found in the prophet’s visions. John Walton offers some sound advice on this matter in A Survey of the Old Testament (by John Walton and Andrew Hill). He writes,

“The use of symbols in apocalyptic literature has often created confusion and uncertainty for interpreters. Many books offer incredible revelations of the symbolic meaning of this or that passage from the apocalyptic literature. Much confusion is caused, however, by one’s mistakenly treating the vision of a prophet as the message of a prophet. The vision was not the message, but the occasion for the message. In Zechariah 1, for instance, the vision is of horses in a grove of myrtle trees (vv. 8-11). It would be a mistake to conclude that the Israelites listening to Zechariah were to keep their eyes on the myrtle trees and be alert for a group of horsemen and riders. The message was not that there would be horses among the myrtle trees, but that the Lord was still concerned about Jerusalem—as the text makes eminently clear (vv. 14-17).”

“Likewise, in Zechariah 5 the vision concerns carrying off to Babylon a measuring basket with a woman in it. Again, this was the vision, not the message. The message is not so explicitly stated in this text as in Zechariah 1, but verse 6 gives the information necessary to deduce that the message concerned a purging from the sin of idolatry.”

“Understanding the message does not require an interpretation of everything in the vision, or even understanding of the chronological placement of the events in the vision. The features of the vision are incidental; they are not the message. Unfortunately, some interpreters place too much confidence in their ability to discern the meaning of symbols in prophetic literature and spend much time devising and defending such meaning. Yet it cannot be assumed that every object in a vision has symbolic value, and when the meaning of a symbol is not given in the text, the interpreter must be cautious in supplying such a meaning. It is possible that the symbolism is used to conceal rather than to reveal.”

“In the examples given, the myrtle trees and the basket may or may not have symbolic value. If they do, the text has not disclosed the meaning, and any speculation, no matter how thoughtful, would fall short of coming with the authority of God’s prophetic word. Unrevealed symbolism cannot be considered the inspired message of the prophet.”

“In general, the prophet was given a message by God that he was supposed to communicate to his audience. In apocalyptic prophecy, the seer was often given a vision of what was to come, and the message was predicated on the information received in the vision. To reiterate, the vision was not the message, but the occasion for the message.” (508-9)

Surevey of the Old Testament


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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2 Responses to John Walton Cautions: Don’t “Mistake the Vision as the Message”

  1. Pingback: Friday Findings

  2. Pingback: Z Book Around the Web – Trading Cards, Greek Devotions, and Apocalyptic | Zondervan Academic Blog | Zondervan Academic

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