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The Function of Apocalyptic
Brent Sandy says that understanding the function of apocalyptic literature is probably the most important thing about it.1 He says that the main thing is to bring hope in adversity. As he puts it, “The lofty heights of the [rollercoaster] ride—so unlike anything known on this earth—help the persecuted put their misfortunes in perspective.”2 Sandy describes the six effects of apocalyptic upon the hearers3:
- It creates worshipful awe of the sovereign Lord.
- It brings hope and comfort that one day this troubled planet will be rules as heaven is ruled.
- It reminds hearers that they are in the midst of the cosmic battle between good and evil.
- It lends new courage to those under persecution and threat of death that they will be much better off one day.
- It creates an exhilarating image of God coming to earth to right all wrongs.
- It encourages to ethical purity since the faithful will receive honor in the new creation.
I personally do not find any of these things convincing. There is nothing here that straight prophecy doesn’t do also. In fact, God’s covenants do all this far more legibly and cogently. If the people will not believe the covenants why would they believe apocalyptic visions? And do these visions truly bring hope, or do they more usually leave a burning impression of the divine activity?
I submit that the function of apocalyptic is often to reveal the actual supernaturalness of reality and the processes running invisibly behind the Creation Project. As I will show, certain chapters (e.g. Dan 7 & 8; Rev. 12 & 13) do employ powerful images to get our attention. But they are all explained in the context.4
The Influence of the Covenants
What influence, if any do God’s covenants have upon our understanding of apocalyptic literature? My position in this book is that the Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants, mediated via the New covenant in Christ, provide the road map of the Creation Project. Because these covenants possess a normative hermeneutical status, nothing in Scripture can contradict the oaths expressed in these covenants. That is just to say that no genre within the Bible will produce teachings that will contradict the expectations aroused by the things that God has unilaterally sworn to do.
Let us take a look then at the covenantal background found in the major apocalyptic passages. As we do so I will make some comments on the visions themselves.
Examining the Books
If we examine the “apocalyptic books” of the Bible without reference to critical scholarship what we see is something different than the recommended formulae. Ezekiel shows us the cherubim, which have been mentioned previously in e.g. Genesis 3 and 1 Kings 6, but we did not comprehend their strangeness until he described them (Ezek. 1 & 10). This appears to be a simple case of progressive revelation rather than anything connected to genre. An important question is, can a genre define whether or not a biblical writer decides to describe what he actually saw? We can admit that the composite beasts of Daniel 7 and 8 are figurative, but as Murphy has said, the figurative and metaphorical convey literal meanings.5 He writes,
Do the writers believe in the unseen worlds they depict? They do. Do they believe that seers are granted visions into and tours of the unseen world? Yes. Do they believe that the specifics of that world are accurate as described? Yes and no… They symbolize things, such as empires and kings. At the same time, even if an empire can be symbolized by a beast, it can be symbolized in other ways as well. And both are true and revelatory. The superhuman power of empires, angels, and demons is real. How it is presented can change.6
Granted that empires are depicted as beasts, these meanings are not difficult to locate, since the prophets give us enough data to know what is intended. However, for the most part, what the prophets see (e.g. angels, cherubs, fiery horses, temples), are what they seem to be. They are often not representations of something else.7 We therefore need to carefully distinguish between the real and the symbolic in apocalyptic.8
I have already said that the majority of Sandy’s examples above are not figurative representations but are literal descriptions. If one examines these passages under the scrutiny of the covenants of God then their combined testimony is clearer.
Isaiah 24 – 27: Isaiah’s “Little Apocalypse”
Isaiah 24 is a poetic description of destruction from the general (an uncreation narrative) to the more particular (no grape harvest). Much of the language is anthropopathic (picturing inanimate things as if they had human emotions). We read of the breaking of “the everlasting covenant”; probably the Noahic covenant.9 Among the verses are more literal short passages of hope injected into the context (24:14-16a; 23b). Nothing in the chapter stands out as fitting apocalyptic genre.
The calamities of chapter 24 are judgments of God, but the next chapter sings of New covenant hope (Isa. 25:6-9). But nothing in Isaiah 25 can be said to be apocalyptical.10 Isaiah 26 is a meditation on the righteous judgments of God and a prayer for His appearing.
When we get to Isaiah 27 we read about Leviathan (27:1), which may well refer to the judgment of Satan (see above). This could be seen as using a fabulous creature for impact, but I am not so sure this dragon is fabulous! Apart from that single verse there is the poetry and vivid expression typical of the prophet, but no apocalyptic. We see no evidence of the presence of supernatural beings or phenomena, and no detail appears to be superfluous. Isaiah’s “apocalypse” really isn’t. As throughout Isaiah there is a thick use of God’s covenant name.
Ezekiel 40 – 48: The Future Temple and Priesthood
I understand Ezekiel’s guide to be angelic, but there is little or nothing in these chapters that is not literal. In fact, Ezekiel himself has led us to expect this temple in Ezekiel 37:21, where it is called God’s mishkan (“dwelling place”), and 37:26 and 28 where it is designated His miqdash(“sanctuary”). In Ezekiel 48:10 and 21 the whole temple is called the sanctuary of Yahweh. Of course, this section is all about the Priestly covenant (e.g. the Zadokites are the descendants of Phinehas). It is set in the time of New covenant fulfillment for the tribes of Israel, when the Shekinah is with them (Ezek. 43), and there is a particular mention of the land aspect of the Abrahamic covenant in Ezekiel 47:13-14.
For comments pertaining to the covenants in this Book see the chapter on Zechariah. Still passages such as Zechariah 2:8, 10, 12; 6:12-13; 8:20-23; 12:10; 13:1; 14:8, 16-21 have clear covenant implications.
Along with many who have preceded us, we have been able to interpret the apocalyptic writings in continuity with the biblical covenants. We see no need at all to abandon our position to grasp the wind with the experts who stray outside of God’s word and return to tell us to feel our way to revelation through this genre of literature.
1 D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks, 109
2 Ibid, 110
3 Ibid, 111
4 See Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching the Last Things: Old Testament Eschatology for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 34
5 Murphy, Ibid, 11-12. Sometimes the fact that the meaning is readily explained in context is forgotten.
6 Ibid, 13
7 Although in the case of Ezekiel’s temple in the last nine chapters of his book, something terrestrial is said to describe a celestial phenomenon.
8 Smith reminds us that “many times these highly charged prophetic performances included prophetic propositions that were not just figurative language. For example, when Isaiah referred to Yahweh as God, Creator, Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, or King (Isa. 41:14, 20-21; 43:3, 14-15; 44:6, 24) there was literal truth connected to these metaphorical roles. – Gary V. Smith, Interpreting The Prophetic Books, 119
9 Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology, 136
10 This runs contrary to many evangelical opinions. For example, Chisholm believes Isa. 24:21-22; 25:8, and 27:1 reflect “Isaiah’s use of mythological imagery” – Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., “A Theology of Isaiah”, in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1991), edited by Roy B. Zuck, 320 n. 15
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.