by Vern S. Poythress
[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 62/1 (2000) 143-46. Used with permission.]
G. K. Beale: The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999. lxiv, 1245 pp. Cloth. $75.00.
G. K. Beale: John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, 166. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. 443 pp. Cloth. $85.00.
Beale’s commentary on Revelation provides detailed argumentation and detailed consideration of background such as a technical commentary needs. 177 pages of introduction cover the issues of date, historical situation, authorship, genre, interpretive approaches, symbolism, text criticism, the use of the OT, grammar, structure, significance of Revelation 1:19, and the theology and goal of the Book. Building on Beale’s doctoral dissertation and on extended study of the use of the OT in Revelation, the commentary provides special detail on OT and intertestamental background, not only in the introduction, but in the commentary on individual verses and sections.
The body of the commentary is usefully divided into sections, following the structure laid out in the introduction. The beginning of a section usually furnishes a brief theologically-oriented summary that helps readers discern the point of the section, and reminds them of its applicability. A large number of excursuses allow the commentary to devote space to special interpretive debates that arise at particular points.
Much of the value of a commentary on Revelation depends on its relation to the major interpretive issues for Revelation. What does Beale’s commentary do?
First, it is idealist. That is, it argues that the major visions of Revelation set out a general pattern of spiritual realities and spiritual war applicable throughout the period from Christ’s first coming until the Second Coming.
Second, it is recapitulationist. That is, it understands the cycles of judgment with the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls as not referring to three chronologically successive series of events, but traveling over some of the same ground from three different points of view. Each of the cycles culminates with the Second Coming and the Final Judgment. In addition, it understands the section from 12:1-14:20 or 12:1-15:4 as similarly looking over the whole interadvent period and culminating in the Second Coming (14:14-20).
Finally, it is amillennialist. It understands the reign of the saints in 20:4 as a description of the saints’ fellowship with Christ’s reign during the intermediate state.
On each of these issues, the commentary does not merely assert its conclusions, but considers the alternatives and includes detailed arguments for its own position.
In all three of these important areas, I believe that the commentary is fundamentally right. It develops in greater depth, technical detail, and sophistication the commendable tradition that students could earlier find only in more popular-level commentaries—particularly William Hendriksen and Michael Wilcock.
The commentary shows special strengths in several areas. First, it devotes a large amount of attention to OT and intertestamental backgrounds to Revelation, and consistently uses the OT to provide significant clues for the interpretation of individual images in Revelation. In particular it finds in Daniel 2:28-29 and 2:44-45 the most significant background for understanding Revelation as a vision concerning inaugurated eschatology. What was far in the future from the standpoint of Daniel has now begun to be fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Christ, explaining how Revelation can speak of the fact that the fulfillment is “soon” and “near” (Rev. 1:1-3). In conjunction with many other observations, Beale’s use of Daniel provides a solid basis for thinking that Revelation prophesies not merely about the Roman Empire or about a final time of crisis, but about the entire interadvent period.
Second, the commentary gives more extensive attention than do many mainstream scholarly commentaries to currently popular alternative approaches within evangelicalism. It pays serious attention to dispensationalism in both scholarly form (R. L. Thomas) and popular form (Hal Lindsey). It interacts not only with traditional Roman Empire preterism but with fall-of-Jerusalem preterism as represented by David Chilton.
Third, the commentary does not flinch in expounding a difficult and unpopular aspect of Revelation, namely its predestinarian and punitive emphases. The commentary discusses these matters from a number of angles: the comprehensiveness of the plan of God; the sovereignty of God and human responsibility; God’s control over evil and Satan; determinate election and reprobation (for example, as represented by the “names not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world,” 17:8; see 21:27); punitive judgments; and eternal punishment (14:11). Beale clearly supports the Augustinian, Reformed position on God’s sovereignty. He argues the more effectively because his presentation arises organically from the text of Revelation and not merely from a system invoked from outside the text.
Some readers may be disappointed that, in spite of 177 pages of introduction, the commentary does not devote more space to issues of authorship, date, and source criticism. But it in addition to its succinct discussion in the introduction, the commentary refers readers to other works where they can follow those issues as thoroughly as they might wish. Beale wisely judged that issues of authorship, date, and sources should not in fact have that much effect on the interpretation of Revelation. Source critical approaches sometimes have startling influence, but only when the critic is carried away by his speculations and begins to interpret primarily the sources rather than the completed work as we have it. Beale is right to eschew such speculations and to concentrate on the clues arising from allusions in Revelation to the OT and to Jewish backgrounds.
In my judgment, Beale’s commentary is the best technical commentary available, and should find a place on pastors’ as well as scholars’ shelves. It provides an abundance of sound guidance to those struggling over the challenge of interpreting Revelation.
In a second book, John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation, Beale has developed at greater length reflections on the use of the OT. These reflections supplement and help to buttress the arguments in the commentary. After a critical survey of scholarly discussion in the introductory chapter, Beale tackles five major topics: various kinds of use of the OT (chapter 2); influence of OT eschatology (chapter 3); symbolism of Revelation (chapter 4); grammar (chapter 5); and the millennium (chapter 6). Each of these chapters offers significant insight.
Chapter 2 argues that Revelation uses the OT in a manner that is both creative and attentive to OT context. Revelation’s evocations of the OT make sense against the background of key presuppositions:
(1) Christ corporately represents the true Israel of the Old and New Testament; (2) history is unified by a wise and sovereign plan, so that the earlier parts of canonical history are designed to correspond typologically … to later parts …; (3) the age of end-time fulfillment has been inaugurated with Christ’s first coming; and (4) … the later parts of biblical history interpret earlier parts, so that Christ as the centre of history is the key to interpreting the earlier …. (pp. 127-128)
Chapter 3, like the commentary, builds on the perception that Revelation understands the church age as a period of inaugurated eschatology. OT prophetic predictions are in process of fulfillment.
Chapter 4 argues at length that Revelation invites a predominantly symbolic rather than literal reading.
Chapter 5 argues that many of the grammatical solecisms in Revelation are introduced in order to jar the reader into attending more closely to an OT allusion.
Chapter 6 develops further the amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10 found in the commentary.
Though the book’s overall judgments are both sound and insightful, a few areas could still receive improvement. First, chapter 1 appeals to E. D. Hirsch’s view of fixed meaning (pp. 51-56) in order to refute postmoderns who produce indefinitely many new meanings without boundaries. The book is right that Revelation does not support a boundless anarchy of meaning. But neither does it quite fit within the strict confines of Hirsch’s view. In a better moment the book recognizes that Christ-centered fulfillment interprets the earlier Scripture (p. 128) in a way not always expected beforehand, thus opening a richer view than most strict Hirschians would contemplate.
The book rightly argues for the dominance of recapitulatory and not merely chronological arrangement in Revelation. But in its zeal for undermining a purely chronological reading, it sometimes goes too far. For example, the book claims that the phrase “after these things” “indicates the sequential order in which John saw the visions but not necessarily the chronological order of their occurrence in history” (p. 196). This claim is valid in most cases, such as in 7:1, 9; and 18:1. Such verses attach “after these things” to an immediately following expression “I saw,” thus indicating a succession of visions. But the book incorrectly puts Revelation 4:1 in the same category (p. 196). 4:1 has the expression “what must happen after these things,” pointing to a succession in history, not in vision. It may be surmised on similar grounds that the book may have overstated its case concerning the key verse 1:19. The book rightly sees 1:1, 1:19, 4:1, and 22:6 as building on Daniel 2:28-29. But does the refutation of pure futurist, pretribulationist interpretation of Revelation 1:19 and 4:1-22:5 necessarily involve evaporating all sense of chronological progression from 1:19?
The book argues that the word “last” in 15:1 indicates that the plagues “come last in the sequence of formal sevenfold visions seen by the seer” (p. 196; see also p. 200). The book also offers an alternative understanding on p. 197, to the effect that the plagues are redemptive-historically “latter day” plagues. Yes, the plagues recapitulate rather than chronologically follow the trumpets. But still one must attend to the final clause in 15:1. The plagues are called “last” “because with them the wrath of God is ended.” Beale interprets the “end” or completion as the completion of the visionary sequence. The bowl visions brings God’s wrath to full expression, literarily speaking (p. 203). But this does not quite work, since after the conclusion of the bowl visions, there are more visionary expressions of wrath in Revelation 17-20, and these are in some ways even more intense and conclusive than the visions of Revelation 16. Moreover, the completion mentioned in 15:1b is a completion “in them,” a completion in the plagues, not specifically in the visions of the plagues. It seems more natural to interpret the word “last” as last at the event level, the level of the plagues, not last at the vision level. The book’s alternative “latter-day” understanding comes close to this conclusion, but still does not satisfactorily reckon with 15:1b. In fact, 15:1b supports Beale’s broader recapitulatory views, since it means that elements of wrath found in Revelation 17-20 recapitulate Revelation 16 (see p. 370).
In spite of a few lapses like this, the book is an excellent one. It takes its place as a worthy supplement to the commentary.
Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary