Monday, April 16, 2012

When the Key Doesn't Fit: A Review of James M. Hamiliton Jr's "Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches."

I do not envy the man who attempts to write a commentary on the book of Revelation. It is a tough book to preach, let alone write a commentary on. There are far too many bad commentaries out there too. Some are overly speculative and leave the reader with little more than some great fiction reading. That is really a shame because of the book of Revelation is incredibly relevant to the church today. That is why I applaud James Hamilton's new commentary Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, which is a part of the the "Preaching the Word" series. Hamilton combines both great scholarly detail and incredibly relevant application into one commentary. You can tell as you read the book that Hamilton loves to preach and loves the church. It absolutely shines through in this commentary.

This commentary is written first and foremost with the pastor in mind. Each chapter is broken down into different parts: an opening illustration, the need that the part of Revelation meets in the church, the main point of the passage, a preview of the text (that is, an outline of the text), the context, the exegesis of the outline and then the conclusion. As you can see, the book is thorough and yet contains application throughout each section. This is a tremendous resource for pastors. Some of the charts Hamilton has in the book are absolutely wonderful as well.

Now, for the gritty details that every person wants to know about a commentary on Revelation. Hamilton is pre-mil but not a Dispensationalist. He is heavily, heavily influenced by G.K. Beale's theology of the temple. Hamilton is an expert in parallels between the OT and NT and draws heavily upon those parallels to formulate his exegesis of the text.

This is where, in my opinion, Hamilton runs into problems. Too often I feel that Hamilton will argue against a literal understanding of the text because he sees a parallel in the OT. As a result, it often feels that Hamilton is forcing a key into a lock that doesn't fit. An example of this is in chapter 21 where he exegetes 11:1-19. Hamilton argues that a) the temple is not a literal temple but rather is figurative for the church, b) the two witnesses are the church and c) the 42-months is not a literal 42-months but rather refers to church history from the time of the cross until the time of the beast.

He bolsters his argument showing the parallels between the two witnesses and Zechariah 4 as well as some inter-textual parallels. That is all well and good. But his hermeneutic runs afoul here. First, Hamilton points out that Daniel's "weeks of years" were, in fact, literal. But then, just a few sentences later, argues that there is no literal seven year tribulation. Logic would argue that if Daniel was literal for the first 69 weeks of years, he would be literal for the last one. Similarly, Hamilton argues that the two witnesses are the church because 1) in the Bible everything must be confirmed by two witnesses; 2) they are called lampstands and so are the churches in Revelation 1; 3) the image of the witnesses as lampstands and olive trees goes back to Zech. 4 which symbolically means that the church will be Spirit-empowered; 4) the witnesses have the power of Elijah and Moses which are symbolic of the protection the church will have.

The issue here is that if all of these images are based upon literal things (with the exception of Zechariah 4), why can't the two prophets be literal? Why can't they have power like Elijah and Moses? Why can't there be a literal temple? There is nothing intrinsic within the text that would suggest this has to be symbolic. In fact, a reader of the OT would expect there to be a literal fulfillment. It would seem to me that Hamilton is too quick to write off a literal interpretation of these events. Admittedly, a literal-interpretation of the text is not popular anymore. Still, I find Hamilton's interpretation of these texts unpersuasive.

That said, it would be a shame to miss out on what Hamilton himself mentions: regardless of your opinion of what the text says, all can agree that the Revelation 11:1-19 shows God's sovereignty in protecting his people. And there lies the beauty of this commentary--even when you disagree with Hamilton, he gets to the bigger picture. He reminds the reader of what really matters--unity and seeing the God of the Bible. He finds the lowest common denominator and reminds the reader of that.

That, to me, is the strength of this commentary and one of the reasons I love James Hamilton's writings. You may not agree with everything he says, but you will always come out worshiping God. So pick up Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches. You won't be disappointed and you will certainly become a sharper exegete for it.

*Thanks to Crossway Publishing for providing me with a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. I was under no obligation to give this book a positive review.*

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