The Bible can be understood. God would never tease mankind by giving him a message only to make it incomprehensible. We can know the truth (John 8:32). But some sections of Scripture are more challenging than others. For example, “the abomination of desolation” from Mark 13:14 can be studied and comprehended but against “Thou shalt not steal” from Exodus 20:15 it appears a greater challenge. Many such passages in Scripture, like Mark 13:14, are in the category of apocalyptic literature. It is important to have a grasp of the nature of such writing in order to better understand it. Other forms of Bible literature include the narrative (stories), parables, letters (epistles), prayers and so forth. But our purpose here is to give some understanding to apocalyptic literature.
“Apocalyptic” comes from “apocalupis” (ah-pock-ah-LOOP-es) from the Greek. It is the very first word of the book of Revelation and it is from the word that the book gets its name. It most commonly means a revelation, unveiling or disclosure of something unknown. In the study of types of Bible literature it has come to mean passages that may offer some glimpse into the future by using fantastic, vivid imagery. The future is often in view but not always (c.f. Acts 2:17-21 from Joel 2:28-32 which is fulfillment of apocryphal language).
Some of the images include whirling metal objects with creatures like a combined human/bird/calf (Ezekiel 1:4-14)great eagles that plant and nourish twigs from trees which grown into great vines (Ezekiel 17:1-8), violent goats and rams which destroy the stars of heaven (Daniel 8:1-14), scrolls of history with seals, (Revelation 5, 6), mountains thrown into the sea (Revelation 8:10), dragons (Revelation 12:1-6) and horrible beasts (Revelation 13:1). These are stunning images that create great curiosity and also send a message.
Interpreting apocalyptic material requires some common sense guidelines. For example, a passage cannot mean one thing to the original recipients and something else to people today. One writer interprets passages in Revelation to mean the communist People’s Republic of China. It could not have meant such to ancient man as there was no such republic. They attempt to narrowly define the meaning fails. A second principle is that figurative passages must be figurative and literal passages literal. A common error arises from Revelation 20:1-10 where we read of Satan being bound for 1,000 years with a great chain and cast into a bottomless pit which was opened with a key. People understand the key, the chain and the pit to be figurative but force the 1,000 years to be understood literally. This is an error. Third, apocalyptic literature cannot contradict plain, clear Bible teaching. An example here might be the idea of the secret Rapture of the saints which is clearly a contradiction of Scripture which declares the public noticeable return of the Lord which will be seen by every eye (Revelation 1:7).There are other principles that apply but this suffices to show that common sense must be used.
Apocalyptic literature can be found in many places in the Bible. It is probably most common in Ezekiel, Daniel, the minor prophets and Revelation although it is also found in many other locations.
When studying your Bible and reading of larger than life, hard to believe monsters and events, pause and ask whether the passage might be an example of apocryphal literature. If it is, know that it is true and that it reveals important information to the student. But also remember that it must be studied with common sense in the forefront. The study of these figurative passages is exciting and can build a strong hope for tomorrow. But do not be misled by those who teach falsely.