Rethinking the Language of Apocalyptic Literature – Part 1

I am assuming (dangerous, I know) that the readers of this blog presume I have a high view of Scripture. However, it bears repeating: without apology, I hold to a high view of Scripture. The Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. Yet, inspiration is a complex issue and must not be treated superficially. Therefore, in the next several posts, I will seek to deal with the language of apocalyptic literature with the complexity it deserves.

Let’s begin with the dilemma of apocalyptic language. In a sense, apocalyptic and prophetic writers had an impossible task. How could language describe God? God is the only thing in the universe like Himself. No one has ever seen or experienced anything that compares to God Himself.

In addition, how can one describe the future? There are things that would happen in the future that the current reader had no categories for in the present. This is certainly true of us. Before there were telephones, how could we have described talking on a cell phone while checking our visual voicemail? Before there were cars, how could we have conceived of automobiles that could speak directions to the nearest movie theatre?

With this in mind, what method could apocalyptic and prophetic writers use communicate to their original audience ideas for which their current audience had no categories? The use of creative language. Under divine inspiration, often through the use of poetry, apocalyptic and prophetic writers would use metaphors and similes from their own world to help the reader to experience what the world of God was like … as best they could.

D. Brent Sandy in his book, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, gives great illustration of how essential creative language was to the original reader, how great the divide was between the apocalyptic writer and their audience.

Climb into an eight-person raft for an October trip down the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia, and you will experience power. Millions of gallons of water being released from Summersville Reservoir turn the gorge into a competition between water and rock. The rock wins, and the water alters its course, surging over and around and between boulders and canyon walls. The result is roaring whitewater: massive hydraulics, towering liquid walls, class V rapids–powerful enough to stand your raft straight up in the air, with you and your buddies in it–maybe! Guides prepare rafters for the good and the bad: the rush of adrenaline, the teamwork, the risks. And they need to. Every year the river chews up and spits out hapless victims. But you are there to experience adventure, to behold beauty, to learn respect, to stand in awe to feel power.

Prophecy is like whitewater, perhaps the most powerful whitewater in Scripture–maybe in all the literature world. This is language unmatched in what it beholds and in how it describes the beholden. Words of worship, terror and mercy are unparalleled. Words of beauty, passion and hope are unequalled. Words of adoration, condemnation and salvation are unrivaled.

… Imagine a twenty something American student describing a whitewater rafting experience to a seventy something Bedouin patriarch. The American has something exhilarating to tell about, but how can she express it?

The Bedouin ekes out an existence in a water-deprived desert, has barely seen rain, let alone a river, and has no framework for conceiving of millions of gallons being released at the base of a huge dam. The Bedouin cannot understand concepts like whitewater, the deafening roar of crashing water, hydraulics and walls of water. He is also baffled by the notion of pumping air inside of cloth, with men (and women!) floating in a boat made of such cloth. He is puzzled by the possibility of people having the leisure or desire to do such a thing.

For the American to communicate with this man of sand–assuming language is not a barrier–she must use things from a Bedouin’s world and conjure up images that will let him experience a very different world. The combination of something exciting to describe and something impossible to describe will result in something like the language of prophecy. The power is what is beholds and in how it describes the beholden.


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