Apocalyptic, as a category of prophetic literature, is the most dramatic, foreign, and difficult to understand of all the biblical literary forms. It deals with end-of-the-world events using symbolism and figurative language. It is found in parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation.
Characteristics of apocalyptic
There are certain general features, which are characteristic of apocalyptic literature.
- The presence of the ongoing battle between good and evil
- Often narrated as an eyewitness account with visions and revelations
- A contrast between pessimism concerning the present evil age and optimism concerning the coming end of the age and the age to come
- Deliverance in a time of persecution
- Numerical and animal symbolism
- The idea of the unity of history and a goal toward which history is moving
- The resurrection of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked
- The appearance of a transcendent figure identified as “the Son of Man”
Here are a few tips for interpreting apocalyptic literature
Since apocalyptic makes frequent use of poetry and figurative language we need to apply the rules of these other genres when interpreting apocalyptic.
Determine the author’s intended meaning to his original audience, starting with the historical context—the occasion, purpose and main themes. For example, Revelation was written to Christians who had been undergoing at least two generations of persecution with no hope for change. John wrote to give his readers encouragement and hope and uses symbolism to describe the attributes of the person, place, or thing being described rather than simply naming it.
Interpret apocalyptic texts literally unless the literal interpretation violates common sense, is obviously contrary to the author’s intention, contradicts other teachings of Scripture, or the content indicates that figurative language and symbolism is being used.
Compare the analogies in images from other texts such as John’s use of Ezekiel or Daniel in Revelation. When interpreting New Testament apocalyptic cross-check references to Old Testament passages.
Do not get bogged down in the details of the visions. Generally, a vision, or even a series of visions should be seen as a whole, with each individual vision contributing to a central meaning, similar to interpreting a parable.
Interpret the symbols. Symbols are the most challenging aspect of apocalyptic. The symbolism of apocalyptic is derived primarily from the Old Testament, contemporary life in the Roman province of Asia, and Jewish apocalyptic literature.
- Start with the ones interpreted by the Scriptures themselves. Many times these will help us determine the meaning of others
- Note the qualities of the literal object denoted by the symbol
- Try to discover from the context the purpose for using a symbol
- Use any explanation given in the context to connect the symbol and the truth it teaches
If the symbol is not explained, then use every clue found in the immediate context or in any part of the book where the figure occurs. Try to understand why the symbol was effective for the first hearers or readers.
- Observe how often and where a symbol is found but allow each context to control the meaning. Do not force symbols into preconceived schemes of uniformity
- When numbers are encountered, try to ascertain the symbolism that was used for these numbers in their time
For example, seven was the number of perfection and six was short of perfection and symbolized sin. When colours are encountered they are used to symbolize attributes, such as white for purity, and red for Jesus’ blood.
- Note how the symbols were used in other literature from the same period
The most important thing about apocalyptic is to read it theologically. The primary purpose of apocalyptic writing is to teach us to trust in God. The message is that He is in control even when things are at their worst. We can trust Him and persevere in the faith even when it is difficult, because we know He will set things right in the end. If you get that you’re doing alright.