Rethinking the Language of Apocalyptic Literature – Part 2

Why is biblical apocalyptic literature so difficult for twenty first century American Christians? There are many reasons. However, since this posts is dealing specifically with apocalyptic literature, I want to single out one particular genre of writing that has proven most difficult for us Americans: apocalyptic and prophetic literature is often written as poetry. Poetry, by its very nature, “is a performance rather than a series of propositions. It is the music of literature. This inherent and enriching ambiguity of poetry limits our ability to interpret with scientific precision.” (D. Brent Sandy, pg. 37).

Thoughtful readers of the previous quote will ask: “Are you contending that apocalyptic literature in general, and the Book of Revelation in particular, is not to be taken literally?” In response, my contention is that we have misused the words literal and figurative, and it has been to our detriment. We cannot read apocalyptic or poetic language with strict wooden literalness, or the literature loses its intended meaning. Let me explain by quoting from D. Brent Sandy’s book, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks.

Problem 2: Literal or Figurative? Common to human speech are phrases like “set the stage,” “get it out on the table,” “between a rock and a hard place,” “a shot in the dark,” “upset the fruit basket,” “pave the way,” “put your best foot forward,” “up your alley,” “be a burr under the saddle” –the list could go on for miles! For some phrases the meaning is almost always figurative: “off the cuff,” “start from scratch,” “beat around the bush,” “live high on the hog,” “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” For others the context must reveal whether the meaning is literal or figurative: “a loaded gun,” “hit the fan,” “slip through the cracks,” “on the other side of the coin,” “new kid on the block,” “turn upside down.” We draw from a repertoire of such phrases for several reasons: to be creative, to gain attention and to give a visual sense to what we want to communicate.

… Our problem, then, is determining when the prophet is being literal or figurative … Yet between these two sense are gradual steps. For example:

Isaiah 2:4 (ESV) — … and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

These words could be understood to say that each person who has a sword or a spear will reshape it by pounding it into a plow or pruning hook (good luck!). That would be a very strict literalness. Or a reader may conclude that “beat” refers to going to a blacksmith who will use fire to soften the iron before refashioning it. Having a blacksmith do it would be a little less literal. Another step away from strict literalness would be for those who have any instrument of aggression to transform it, by whatever means necessary, into an instrument of agriculture. The statement would still be literal, though the specific words of the text are pointing to a meaning beyond the surface meanings of the words. Or if we take the author to be saying that political peace will be achieved between all nations–or even simply that God will restore order on the earth–the figurative meaning may be predominant, but all literalness has not been lost. Only when we reach the point of denying that anything will happen as a result of these words have we moved completely away from the literal meaning … In other words, the literal or figurative interpretation of Scripture is not a simple black-or-white issue.

Therefore, it is my contention, that we are looking for the “literal sense” of apocalyptic literature, and not strict wooden literalness.

In addition, apocalyptic and prophetic literature is full of emotion, because the writers are addressing desperate situations. Therefore, the writers of this type of literature often write in emotional language that is not intended to be exact language. One of the figures of speech they use is called “hyperbole: exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Hyperbole, in effect, stretches the truth in order to increase the impact of the words.

Let me give you an example. We often say things like, “I’ve told you a million times.” This is not meant to be exact language, but it conveys a powerful message. This exaggerated statement gets the point across better than the exact number of times we might have told them.

Unfortunately, apocalyptic and prophetic writings are frequently misunderstood because we fail to take the time to understand the text as the authors intended and the original hearers understood. The result has been all kinds of speculations and dogmas regarding how the future will unfold. Because we have failed to read apocalyptic literature looking for the “literal sense,” and we have overlooked figures of speech (such as hyperbole), the misinterpretations of the biblical text have been legion and dangerous and embarrassing. To be sure, apocalyptic and prophetic texts are challenging. However, these texts are even more so when we do not take the time to understand this particular genre of Scripture.

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