How does Apocalyptic Literature Work?

Apocalyptic literature is written in symbolism, poetry, and imageries, as well as in an Old Testament prophecy style (Matt. 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21; Rev. 1:2-4; 19:9; 22:7-19), all woven as a tapestry to describe literal events but with a twist, using language with symbols that are cataclysmic, words that are exaggerated, and metaphors that may be lost to a 21st century person. Such imagery is often used for God’s judgments and the end of days. These forms of language (genre) are often combinations of narrative (story form) and prose (poetic) written in vivid imagery and rhythmical phrases that are intended to express a deeper but not necessarily a hidden meaning that a “regular” word would not convey.

Take our English word, “bull.” It normally means a male cow, but in context, it refers to not just a farm animal, but also could mean someone who is aggressive, an upswing in the stock market, someone who is clumsy, or slang for someone who is telling a lie. This simple word can be exaggerated for a purpose just as Daniel and most of Revelation uses language to express a point. Apocalyptic writing is also found in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Matthew 24.

Apocalyptic literature is a combination of narrative and prose written in vivid imagery and poetic phrases that are intended to exaggerate for a purpose, such as in Daniel and most of Revelation. Apocalyptic writing is a more specific form of prophecy. Apocalyptic writing is a type of literature that warns us of future events, but the full meaning is hidden to us for the time being. Apocalyptic writing is almost a “secret,” giving us glimpses of what is to come through the use of symbols and imagery. We may not know the meanings now, but time will flush them out.

Metaphors are very evident in apocalyptic writing, which is also more than a specific form of prophecy. Apocalyptic writing is a type of literature that uses vivid symbolism at the same time, it encourages and reassures the reader that God is in control and they do not need to fear as long as they fear Him.

Apocalyptic writing is almost a “secret,” giving us glimpses of what is to come through the use of symbols and imagery. It is secret only because when we read it in English (or any language that is not 1st century Greek) nearly 2,000 years later, we do not understand it. Will someone 2,000 years from now realize that a “bull market” does not mean that a farmer’s truck broke down and a cow got loose in a store? Or, when Jesus says He is the bread of life (John 6:35) does that mean we only find Him in a bakery? Does it mean Jesus is a door, a light, a rock, hears sheep, or that He went to every city, or the Lord’s Supper is cannibalism (Matt. 5:14; 9:35, Luke 22:19; John 10:9, 11)?

We may not always know the meanings now, but time will flush them out; we can know a lot more if we just take some time to research it. The key to unlocking the code of Revelation is simple; just ask, what did it mean to a first-century Jew?

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