The Nature of Apocalyptic Literature

How is apocalyptic literature similar to and different from typical biblical prophecy?

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Well, apocalyptic literature is similar to biblical prophecy in the sense that it does tell something about the future. It anticipates God's work in the world and the surety, or the confidence that God's people can have, that he will continue to be involved in the goings-ons of their life, and the life of the world around them. But when you compare apocalyptic literature to, for instance, to typical biblical prophecy, you find that there are also some very significant differences. Biblical prophecy is typically involved in the genre of prayers or speeches, for instance. Biblical prophecy is often prayers to God, lamenting for sin, repenting for sin, or prayers of praise, or prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord. So, they often show up in a sort of poetic style and involve the vivid and metaphorical imagery that we find in poetry. Sometimes, biblical prophecy is also taken up in speeches, speeches to God's people, either declaring the threat of judgment, or declaring a hope in blessing and salvation in the future. Again, like all biblical prophecies, the most significant aspect of the prophecy is that it's calling God's people to faithfulness and repentance. However, when we turn to apocalyptic literature, we find a very different mode of communication. We see the prophet, instead, taken up in the Spirit often, into sort of a spiritual realm where they watch a drama played out before them. Now, like biblical prophecy, the drama involves concerns about the future, sometimes the near future and sometimes the very distant future. But as the prophet watches this drama played out, he reports to us on what he sees. In apocalyptic visions, the prophet will often have an angelic tour guide who is explaining to him the events that he sees around him. The prophet can ask questions to the angel, and the angel will often respond or give other kinds of clarification to what the prophet is seeing in front of him. Now, the drama that is played out in a visionary apocalypse is one which is very figurative; it's very vivid in its imagery, but it tends to draw large lines and broad strokes about future events. They're always involving cosmic conflict, battle between light and darkness, battle between God and his enemies. And we see these great broad strokes being drawn out throughout the apocalyptic vision, often using very vivid and very exciting imagery. So, you see the apocalyptic genre is really a vision report, reporting on a drama that's played out in the future of great cosmic conflict between God and his enemies. Biblical prophecy, on the other hand, typically involves poetry, things like prayers and speeches. And yet, both call God's people to be both comforted and consoled by the promise of God's deliverance and his reign in the future, but also to be called back to faithfulness by the opportunity of participating in God's kingdom, and the desire to be on the side of the divine King who has the victory.

Answer by Dr. Scott Redd

Dr. Scott Redd Jr. (Ph.D., The Catholic University of America) is the President and Stephen B. Elmer Professor of Old Testament at the Washington, D.C. campus of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS).