Getting the Most Out of Apocalyptic Literature

It is important to note that 28% of the Old Testament is prophecy, most of which came to pass in the life and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. The New Testament has over 20% of some form of prophecy too, of which most (although this is debated) has not yet come to pass. Thus, prophecy is important because God has dedicated a significant portion of His Word to it.

Again, do not read in what is not there. We are given a clear warning in Revelation 22:18-19 not to add in our ideas or take a way His precepts and thus teach what is false. It is OK to speculate academically, research, and argue and deliberate over the views, but we are not to seek or read in what we want and then miss what He has. A lot of Christian writers love to embellish on this subject and give their own version of what will happen. But, the scores of books that have been written in the last hundred years have not panned out in their theories. Every prediction made by many melodramatic preachers and writers have not come true because it is “their” theories, not based on fact or careful study of Scripture. The Bible clearly tells us we do not have access to that information; no one will know the time (Matt. 25:13; John 16:4).

When you come to a word in the Bible, it is best to first assume it is literal, unless the context and word cry out, “hey! This may be a metaphor!”

Just look it up in a Bible Dictionary, a Bible Background Commentary or language help, or use our website. A metaphor does not mean that the Bible is not literal, as finding the meaning of the word is a literal way to receive God’s truth. The bottom line is this; the reason why we do not always take these images literally is for the reason that this is “apocalyptic literature” written in symbolism, poetry and imageries conveying ideas and representations, whereas most of Scripture is narrative and epistles (letters) that we do take as literal; they mean what they mean plainly.

Make sure you are not reading into the Bible what you want it to say; rather, allow His Most precious Word to challenge you to lead a great fruitful Christian life! We can agree to disagree over what is literal and what is figurative, or what view one should take—or take no view at all, as I do. The main point is our love for the Lord and our willingness to learn and apply His precious Truth into our lives and church. He is the One who gives us life, salvation, is in control, has a plan, and will work it out in His perfect time!

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?