Apocalyptic Literature

The key texts for the majority of premillenial doctrine come from the apocalyptic books of the Bible. The term “apocalyptic” means an “uncovering” or “revealing,” and it refers to those books that disclose divine secrets by means of signs and symbols. But how do we make a proper use of apocalyptic books, like Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation?

As we survey apocalyptic writings (both biblical and uninspired books, of which there are many) several key characteristics become apparent. First, apocalyptic is dualistic in nature. By this we mean it discusses events from two different perspectives: heaven and earth. The apocalyptist directs us to the heavenly realm to explain events here as a result of what God is doing there. 2 Baruch (an uninspired work of the late first century) discusses the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70. “And after this I heard that angel saying to the angels . . . ‘Destroy and throw down the walls to its foundations’” (7:1-8:1). Here the destruction of Jerusalem is not the result of Roman armies (as it would appear from an earthly perspective). The writer “sees” a vision revealing that it is the work of God (as seen from the heavenly perspective). Both Daniel and Revelation heavily employ this “let me show you behind the scenes” tactic of apocalyptic. This is really the crux of apocalyptic: it lets the reader in on what is really happening as it shows God at work to establish His ultimate order. Isn’t that the point of Revelation 12:7-10? There we find a heavenly battle scene with results that affect all men here on this earth. This is classic dualism that clearly says what is going on here is not the whole story. Apocalyptic writings attempt to pierce the veil and explain events here in light of what is happening there.

This dualistic orientation establishes apocalyptic as crisis literature. It is the kind of material that is written in response to terrible times and turmoil. Much intertestamental apocalyptic was written during the oppression of Antiochus Ephiphanes. For the Jews this was a devastating time, and extremely difficult to reconcile to their view of God. They were doing right _ so why were they being oppressed? Where was God? The scoffers said “If there is a good God who is all powerful why doesn’t He deliver you?” The apocalyptic writers answered by saying “He will, and He will do it soon. Let us tell you what that day of deliverance will look like.”

What of the weird signs and symbols in apocalyptic? In apocalyptic, nothing is revealed in a straightforward fashion. Some have theorized that these symbols serve as some sort of “code” which would keep the authorities from understanding the book’s contents if it should fall into their hands. However, I know of no proof of this contention. Apocalyptic is written this way because it is more interesting, and holds the reader’s attention better. Just as the poetic sections of the Bible are in that format because it conveys that message better to couch it in poetry and song, similarly apocalyptic has its own unique style because that form trumpets its message in the most effective way. Which provokes your interest: a blanket statement that God will triumph or a vivid battle scene picturing in graphic detail that victory?

Victory is the keynote of apocalyptic literature. In apocalyptic God always wins. Always. 1 Enoch 1:9 (an uninspired work of the third century bc) says “Behold! He comes with ten thousand holy ones to execute judgment upon them, and to destroy the impious. . . .” Similar citations from Revelation could be multiplied (see 18:2, 21ff; 19:1-2). This brings us back to our beginning. Apocalyptic was not written as some wild-eyed prophecy of events far in the future. It was written in response to an immediate crisis and gave one, constant formula answer: God will triumph soon. Remember, apocalyptic is not prophecy, because it always has the same constant conclusion: God and His people will win in the end.

Let me close with a few observations about how to read and interpret apocalyptic literature. First, we must remember that none of the apocalyptic books in scripture were written to us or are about our day and age. They contain assurance and hope for the faithful of biblical times. To read their “mail” and decide it speaks to our times is not only a ridiculous misuse of the Bible, it is downright arrogant. Second, we must continually ask what these apocalyptic books are doing and saying. This is why it is outrageous to try to derive some date or calendar of events from Revelation. If God wanted us to know when the world would end He could have told us. After all, He knows! Revelation doesn not tell us so obviously God wants us to get something else from it. Let’s look for God’s message instead of the one we want to find. Third, we must deal with the big picture. Apocalyptic is not detailed reporting. Characters and events are very large in the apocalyptic genre. Don’t look for shades of grey or deep character development. This is mostly the good versus evil motif, and little more. If we are grasping that theme we are understanding Revelation because that is the purpose apocalyptic literature serves.

Regrettably, there is a feeling among many students that if the teacher or commentary were really “deep” they would probe the book at a deeper level and explain what every minute detail means. Thus when teachers refuse to misuse the scripture in this way they are viewed as shallow. Some are certain there is “something” still to be found in Revelation. We must let go of this idea. There isn’t any more! Apocalyptic is not doctrinal material that explains everything in microscopic detail. To re-make Revelation into Romans is a tragic mistake. Let Revelation do what apocalyptic does: show God’s triumph in a incredibly moving visual format.

The theme of apocalyptic literature is God’s certain triumph. That is a theme that can be understood and desperately needs to be sounded in our Bible classes and pulpits. Let us read apocalyptic for all God meant it to be.