This article is excerpted from Symposium on Revelation, Book 1, (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 1992), Chapter I, "Foundation Principles of Interpretation," pp. 11-14
By Kenneth A. Strand
The book of Revelation represents a type of literature and style unique among the books of the New Testament. Its closest Bible parallel is the Old Testament book of Daniel. These two Bible books generally are classified as "apocalyptic prophecy," in contrast to "classical prophecy" (sometimes called "general prophecy"), the latter being represented by such books as the major and minor prophets.
Both kinds of prophetic literature teach divine truth, as do all the other kinds of literature in the Bible. But just as in the case of the other literary types, the characteristics peculiar to this kind of literature must be taken into account by the student. Unfortunately, the distinction between classical and apocalyptic prophecy is frequently blurred by Bible expositors.
Generally Recognized Features of Apocalyptic
Various authors have pointed out features common to the genre of literature known as apocalyptic. The following list, based largely on my Interpreting the Book of Revelation*, may be considered representative:
Striking contrasts. Apocalyptic prophecy makes a clear and invariable line of demarcation between good and evil, between God's forces and Satan's forces, between the righteous and the wicked, between salvation for God's children and doom for their enemies. Among the numerous striking opposites in the book of Revelation are the seal of God and the mark of the beast, the faithful and true witness and the serpent that deceives the world, the virgin of Revelation 12 and the harlot of Revelation 17, the armies of heaven and the armies of earth, the fruit of the tree of life and the wine of the fury of God's wrath, the New Jerusalem in glorious splendor and Babylon in flaming destruction, and the sea of glass and the lake of fire.
Cosmic sweep. Classical prophecy deals with the local and contemporary situation as its primary focus, with a certain degree of broadening to depict a final great day of the Lord. Apocalyptic has instead, as its very warp and woof, the element of cosmic sweep or universal scope. Apocalyptic prophecy approaches the great controversy between good and evil, not within a local and contemporary historical framework (such as depicted in the messages of the major and minor prophets), but from the vantage point that draws aside the curtain, as it were, on the entire world for the whole span of human history.
For example, Daniel 2 and 7 treat world empires in succession for the reminder of earth's history from Daniel's time until the final consummation and setting up of God's everlasting kingdom. Revelation likewise scans major historical developments from John's day up to and including a portrayal of the grand eschatological finale.
Eschatological emphasis. At times the general prophets broaden the scope of the doom oracles or "day-of-the-Lord" judgments" -- whether directed against Israel, Judah, Nineveh, Babylon, Moab, Edom, or whatever entity it might be -- to portray briefly a final judgment at the end of earth's history. However, the major thrust of their writing is for the situation of their own day.
On the other hand apocalyptic prophecy, although it treats history down through the stream of time, has a particular focus on the end-time events. Apocalyptic describes an ongoing struggle between good and evil in history, a history that tends to degenerate as it proceeds in time. But it is a history that is actually moving toward an end at which time God Himself will directly intervene to destroy evil and establish righteousness.
In a sense we may say that the general prophets looked upon history from the standpoint of their own position in time, whereas the apocalyptic prophets envisage a sweep of history with a special focus on history's eventual climax.
Origin in times of distress and perplexity. In its historical setting, biblical apocalyptic such as Daniel and Revelation arose in times of distress, perplexity, and persecution. Thus, it appears that Apocalyptic prophecy emerges when dire circumstances for God's people might well lead them to question whether God is still active and in control. And it teaches clearly and forcefully that God is indeed still the master of history, that He is with His people, and that He will fully vindicate them at a grand and glorious eschatological climax. Apocalyptic prophecy is a kind of literature that is particularly suited to give comfort and hope to oppressed and downtrodden servants of God in their time of critical need for precisely such comfort and hope.
Basis in visions and dreams. A comparison of apocalyptic prophecy with classical prophecy and other biblical literature indicates that apocalyptic is characterized by more frequent reference to visions and dreams than is true of any other kind of literature found in the Bible. Also, the appearance of angels to interpret such visions and dreams is not uncommon.
Extensive use of symbolism. Moreover, whatever symbolism the classical prophets use, it tends to follow true-to-life patterns, whereas apocalyptic often departs from conventional forms. It depicts, for example, animals that are nonexistent in nature, such as the seven-headed dragon and the sea beast of Revelation, the winged lion and the four-headed leopard of Daniel, etc. Composite symbolism was common, of course in the art and literature of the ancient Near East.
Summary. Although classification on the basis of such criteria has been called into question, most scholars still give weight to these elements as being basic characteristics of apocalyptic prophecy. In any event, the simple fact is that there is a body of ancient literature that manifests to a greater or lesser degree most of these elements; therefore, for descriptive and utilitarian purposes a classification on the basis of them seems both useful and warranted. Knowing and understanding such special characteristics of apocalyptic is, of course, a first step in proper interpretation.
It should be noted, too, that all the characteristics set forth above are not necessarily completely unique to apocalyptic. The extent to which they appear and the manner in which they are used in apocalyptic is, however, quite distinctive and serves to provide a significant contrast to the dynamic evidenced in classical prophecy.
*K. A. Strand, Interpreting the Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Naples, FL, 1979), pp. 18-20