“The problem is that the New Testament simply doesn’t support this literalistic use of apocalyptic language.” – NT Wright
Firstly, this is not about end-times theology, but instead it is about the literary style of writing found in the Bible that many of us in the Western Culture are not familiar with. Just as we know that the Gospels are Biographical, or the Psalms are poetic, there are sections of the bible written in a Jewish style known as, Apocalyptic Language.
In my previous post about God’s revelation through Scriptures, I examined the fact that some passages of Scripture are clearly true to the time and audience to whom they were written. Others, have since been rendered obsolete by events such as the Cross of Jesus Christ. Similarly, I’d like to give some examples of what Apocalyptic Language is, to help believers in their understanding of what the Bible is trying to convey. It is used in passage of judgment and deliverance, but as we will see, it is not a literal language, but one rich in symbolism.
In the Book of Isaiah for instance, there is such an account of God bringing Judgment upon a nation. We can note in these passage that the Lord himself comes down to fight this battle (Isaiah 13:5-6).
Isaiah 13:10 For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.
Isaiah 13:11 And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
Isaiah 13:13 Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger
WOW! This is awesome! God is flexing his muscles in Judgment, and this is going to a Celestial battle that seems to echo through the Cosmos. The only Problem with this literal interpretation, is that the passages are talking about God Judging the Babylonian Empire, which was eventually destroyed by the Medo-Persians Empire. That is what these passages are talking about. Isaiah 13:1 The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see.
We read a similar story in Isaiah Chapter 34:2 For the indignation of the LORD is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter.
Isaiah 34:4 And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.
My Goodness! The End has surely come upon all people and the Cosmos! This is surely nothing less than Armageddon itself! The only problem with that literal interpretation is verse 6, where we learn that God is judging Idumea.
Ezekiel 32:6 – 8 I will also water with thy blood the land wherein thou swimmest, even to the mountains; and the rivers shall be full of thee. And when I shall put thee out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land, saith the Lord GOD. (God Judging Egypt and Pharaoh by the hand of the Babylonians, Verse 11-12)
Many believers read these passages and take them to be literal, when the early Jews understood the Apocalyptic writing style in which they were penned. Great astrological and celestial events, while appearing grand through the pages of Scripture, do not entail a literal fulfillment.
For instance, when David wrote in the Psalms 18 about his deliverance from King Saul and his enemies, he says “the earth shook and trembled (Verse 7)”, “the channels of waters were seen, and the foundations of the world were discovered at thy rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils (verse 15).”
Was King Saul such an epic foe, that God had to move earth and reveal the foundations of the world to defeat him? That would be overkill. This is clearly symbolic language that God and the Jews understood to convey Judgment and deliverance of people and nation by God, in localized and regional settings.
There is no point in the Bible where it suggests that the use of apocalyptic language shifts from figurative to literal, otherwise the author would have warned the Jewish readers of the change in context.
For instance when the Apostle John wrote, Revelation 12:4, “And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth.” Is this a literal falling of Stars to earth? Can one third of the Stars, which are thousands of times bigger than the Earth, really be cast down to the Earth? A thinking person may realize there might be another meaning to this passage, other than the literal one. If nothing else, it should at least leave us with something interesting to study about.
Brian L. Martin, talking about the use of Apocalyptic Language in the Scriptures.