Apocalyptic is perhaps the most challenging of all biblical literature to interpret. This is due primarily to its use of symbols to represent future events. The word means to “unveil” or “reveal.” At its core, Apocalyptic literature deals with the eschaton, or end times. When we think of the Apocalyptic literature in the Bible, our minds turn first to Revelation. However, it would be a mistake to assume that Revelation is the only evidence of Apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and parts of Isaiah also contain this type of writing.
Walt Kaiser notes that there are some generally accepted features of Apocalyptic writing: “(a) rich symbolism involving angels, demons, and mixed features of animals, birds, and men; (b) a formalized phraseology indicating that the revelation came by a vision or dream; (c) frequent conversations between the prophet/seer/apostle and a heavenly being who disclosed God’s secret to him; (d) cosmic catastrophes and convolutions; (e) a radical transformation of all of nature and the nations in the near future of that day; and (f) the imminent end of the present age and the establishment of the eternal kingdom of God.”*
When we study these texts, we are dealing with more than simple fantasy or myth-we are dealing with truth. As a result, our interpretation of these writings requires our utmost diligence. Today, there is a great attempt by many pastor-teachers to “explain” every symbol or to predict the exact manner in which the eschaton will occur. This is neither wise nor necessary. Grant Osborne notes,
This does not mean that prophecy and apocalyptic should not be applied to the current situation nor that their ‘fulfillment’ should not be sought. Rather, it means that the interpreter should seek first the ‘author’s intended meaning’ in the original context before delineating the way that the prophecies apply to our time…At the same time the purpose of esoteric symbols in apocalyptic is to turn readers from the actual event to its theological meaning. In other words, readers are expected to see the hand of God in the future but are not supposed to know the exact sequence of events-that is, they are not given a description of what will actually happen. In short, we have no blueprint in Scripture for current events, but rather theological signs which tell us in general that God is going to draw history to a close. Symbols are literal in that they point to future events but not so literal that they tell us exactly how God is going to accomplish his purposes.**
Interpreting Apocalyptic literature is a challenging endeavor. We must work diligently to discover the author’s main idea of the text (MIT). Then, with great care, we share its truth with our contemporary audience. As we encounter the elaborate symbolism of Apocalyptic literature, however, we must acknowledge that we can only go so far in our finite thinking. When we reach the end of ourselves, we must acknowledge our limited understanding and place our confidence in the work of an infinite, sovereign God.
* Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology (Baker, 1981), 93-94.
** Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (2nd Edition; IVP, 2006), 283.