In preparing to teach Daniel tonight, I re-read a great 10-page essay on how to read apocalyptic literature.
Bob Fyall, Senior Tutor in Ministry at Cornhill Scotland, and author of an excellent monograph on Job, Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job, has written a very helpful piece on Preaching Apocalyptic Literature. He supplies 3 traits of Apocalyptic Literature that are characteristic of this strange genre, and he gives 5 interpretive principles for preachers (and all Bible readers).
Justin Taylor pointed to this article a while back along with a number of other helpful lectures and sermons on apocalyptic literature by the likes of D.A. Carson, David Helm, Colin Smith, and Josh Moody.
I have summarized Fyall’s comments–that are worth reading in full–to give a sense of how we should read Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation, to name a few.
3 TRAITS OF APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE
- “Apocalyptic literature tends to deal with symbolism” (e.g. numbers are often used symbolically).
- “Apocalyptic literature particularly emphasizes the unseen world” (e.g. the throne of God is frequently depicted).
- “Apocalyptic literature uses vivid language” that is easier to imagine than exegete.
5 HELPS FOR PREACHING/READING APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE
- Fit apocalyptic literature into the Big Picture of the Bible. Apocalyptic literature (AL) is found throughout the Bible (Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew 24-25, 1 Thessalonians 2, Revelation) and it should be connected to the whole Bible. It is often found originating in times of persecution and distress, namely the exile, and it usually reaches forward to the culmination of all things in the eschaton. When reading AL, be sure to place it in the larger storyline of the Bible.
- Deal with apocalyptic literature faithfully and imaginatively. Symbolism is the stuff of AL. Numbers and wild beasts are often used to depict historical and/or eschatological entities.
- Link the present with the eternal. Preaching (or Bible reading) that is only concerned with the present results in moralistic ‘platitudes;’ but preaching that disconnects the present from the future is distant an intangible. AL however, unites the two, showing how the eternal realities of judgment, salvation, and cosmic warfare relate to the people suffering today. It is very practical. Since the end of the ages is coming with Christ riding on the clouds, be sober and live for his return. Do not get drunk on this age and fall asleep in the light, but keep watching for you do not know when the Son of Man will return, but it is imminent.
- Link apocalyptic literature with other genres in the Bible. AL is never disconnected from other forms of prophecy and instruction in the Bible. Revelation is described as an apocalypse, a prophecy, and a letter. In Daniel, the Babylonian exile fuses with eschatological expectations. Daniel 7 is a brackish inlet that combines the salt water of this world, with the fresh water of the world to come.
- Preach Christ. All Scripture is about Christ, and AL is no different. Though challenging in places, making Christ the focus of our preaching (and Bible reading) will keep us centered on the main thing, one in whom God is unifying heaven and earth (Eph 1:10). Even when details are obscure, keeping Christ at the center makes the passage sparkle with glorious revelation.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss