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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

Apocalyptic Literature

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During the three centuries leading up to and including the New Testament era, the distinctive kind of literature known as apocalyptic flourished among Jewish writers. The name ‘apocalyptic’ comes from the Greek apokalypto, meaning ‘to reveal’ (cf. Revelation 1:1). The literature has been given this name because the authors presented their messages in the form of divinely sent visions that revealed heavenly secrets. The revelations were particularly concerned with coming great events.

The Old Testament books of Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah (also Isaiah Chapters 24-27) show some of the apocalyptic features that began to develop in the later prophetical writings. Likewise, some New Testament writings, such as the book of Revelation and Mark Chapter 13, contain apocalyptic features.

A message for difficult times

With Israel’s release from captivity in 539 BC and its re-establishment in its homeland, many Jews expected that the messianic age was about to dawn. Their hopes, however, were disappointed, and one powerful nation after another continued to rule over Israel.

By this time, the ministry of Israelite prophets, which had never been as prominent after the captivity as before, had almost disappeared entirely. Apocalyptic writers replaced prophetic preachers as the interpreters of Israel’s history. But whereas the prophets were largely concerned with denouncing Israel’s unfaithfulness and assuring the people of their coming judgment, the apocalyptists were more concerned with condemning Israel’s oppressors and announcing certain doom upon them.

A popular practice among apocalyptic writers was to write under the name of a respected Israelite of a previous era. Through prophecies and visions, this ‘writer’ from the former era then spoke of events from his time to the time of the actual writer, as a means of assuring the readers that God was always in control of events. He wanted to encourage God’s people to endure their sufferings, in the assurance that God would soon overthrow evil and bring in the golden age.

Some features of the literature

Throughout the apocalyptic literature there is a sharp contrast between evil and good, between the present world and the age to come. In the present world God’s people suffer because of the evil that hostile governments and ungodly people direct against them. In the age to come, by contrast, God’s people will enjoy unending contentment, whereas those who are evil will be destroyed (cf. Isaiah 24:21-23; Isaiah 25:6-12; Daniel 7:9-14; Revelation 19:1-5; Revelation 21:1-8).

Meantime, God’s people must persevere. They have to realize that history must move along the path that God has determined for it, till the time comes for him to intervene decisively (cf. Ezekiel 39:1-6; Ezekiel 39:21; Ezekiel 39:25; Daniel 12:6-13; Mark 13:24-27; Mark 13:32).

The visions reported by the apocalyptic writers were not usually in the form of scenes taken from real life. In most cases they contained features that were weird and abnormal, such as unnatural beasts and mysterious numbers (Daniel 8:3-8; Daniel 9:24; Daniel 12:11-12; Revelation 13:1-5; Revelation 13:11-18). The visions had symbolic meaning and were often interpreted by angels (Ezekiel 40:2-4; Daniel 8:15-19; Zechariah 1:9; Zechariah 1:19; Zechariah 5:5-6; Revelation 21:9; Revelation 21:15). Such writings enabled the Jews to comment safely on the oppressors who ruled them; for they were able to use symbols (usually beasts) instead of the names of their overlords (Daniel 7:1-8; Mark 13:14; Revelation 13:1-4; Revelation 17).

In contrast to the prophets, who said, ‘This is what God said to me’, the apocalyptists said, ‘This is what God showed me’ (Jeremiah 7:1-3; Jeremiah 23:18 with Zechariah 1:20; Revelation 4:1). Yet in the biblical writings there is much overlap between the prophetic and the apocalyptic. The biblical apocalyptic writers, though they had similarities with other apocalyptic writers, also had the fervent evangelistic and pastoral spirit of the biblical prophets. Although they saw visions that carried symbolic meanings, they also had the prophet’s awareness that they spoke words from God. And those words made spiritual demands upon people (Ezekiel 11:1-12; Ezekiel 33:30-33; Zechariah 1:1-6; Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 1:3; Revelation 2:1-7; Revelation 22:1-4; Revelation 22:7; Revelation 22:18).


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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Apocalyptic Literature'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bbd/a/apocalyptic-literature.html. 2004.

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