So far in this series we have looked at:
- The steps of Inductive Bible Study;
- Historical background relevant to the book;
- The themes of the book, its main idea and reason written.
In this post we will consider the literary styles contained in Revelation and some interpretive helps.
Literary styles in Revelation
To further help with our understanding of the original reader, and thus our interpretation, we need to understand a bit about the literature styles that John wrote in and their understanding of them.
Types of literature in Revelation:
- Epistle (letter)
- A little narrative
- Apocalyptic literature
Prophecy comes in two types (Revelation contains both):
- Foretelling: speaking out things of the future.
- Forth-telling: speaking God’s view of what is actually occurring, speaking into current situations (this is seen much more in the Old Testament than the New Testament).
Let’s consider what is apocalyptic literature. John was not using a new literary style. We find it elsewhere in the Bible, and outside of the Bible. Apocalyptic literature is first found in the book of Daniel; there is some in books such as Ezekiel, too, but Daniel is seen as the founding work of this style. It is found in the following books of the Bible:
Furthermore, was a very common style inside and outside of the Bible during John’s period of history (200BC-100AD).
Apocalyptic literature deals with coming judgement and salvation (again in and out of Bible) and was written during times of persecution and hardship. It uses dreams, visions and symbols with set meanings.
This style also has an amazing amount of structure. Its structure usually includes repetition, and thus is not always chronological or linear in its telling. Furthermore, apocalyptic literature is dualistic in nature (two sides are compared). For example, in Revelation:
- good vs evil,
- dragon vs Lamb,
- mother vs whore,
- marriage supper of Lamb vs great supper of God
Many non-Christian versions of apocalyptic literature tend to be much more secretive in nature, and wrath and judgement are the focus. The Biblical texts are more positive in message, with the focus on salvation and the triumph of good over evil.
Symbolism in Revelation
We have seen that John was using a type of literature that was familiar at the time. Also familiar to the original readers was the symbolism that was included. There is a significant amount of symbolism in the book and it is important to realise that the original readers had insight into a large portion of it. Revelation also tells us what some of the symbols or images mean!
Just as symbolism was familiar to the original readers, symbolism is nothing new to us today. For example:
- What does the #13 mean to you? It is considered bad luck in Western culture. Some people avoid the number when choosing sport’s jerseys or aeroplane seats!
- What does the #4 mean to you? In some Asian countries, it is associated with death.
- How are the colours black and white used in Hollywood? Look at what the good guys vs bad guys are wearing in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars . . .
- In Zulu culture, frogs are feared because they “carry lightening“.
What is something with symbolism in your culture?
As we go through the text of Revelation, we will note what we know of certain symbols. For example, occurring regularly are the numbers 7 and 3 ½. The number 7 is the number for perfection or completion, whereas the figure 3 ½ is the figure for incompleteness.
Cycles in Revelation
You also need to be aware that Revelation, and apocalyptic literature in general, are written in cycles. This means that the book tells the same event from different angles as it progresses. There is debate by scholars as to whether Revelation is cyclical or linear in nature.
Some interpreters hold Revelation to be chronological in nature (that everything progresses in line with historical time). They hold that the seals lead to the trumpets and the trumpets to the bowls, and that judgement language intensifies through these. With the bowls, it is also said that “God’s wrath is finished”.
However, other interpreters note certain events recorded in Revelation that make it hard to think it is strictly chronological.
The following examples seem to look at the same event, but from different perspectives, supporting a cyclical nature:
- When looking at End Times:
- Rev 6:12-14 Appears to be end times;
- Rev 11:15-19 Is and was, but no “is to come”;
- Rev 14:14-20 Angel with sickle and the great wine press = final judgement of God;
- Rev 16:17-21 End as well!
- What happens with the sky?
- Rev 6:14 The sky vanishes:The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
- Rev 11:6 Witnesses have power to shut the sky: They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.
- Rev 20:11 The sky vanishes again: Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.
- What happens with the mountains and islands?
- Rev 6:14 Mountain and islands removed: The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
- Rev 16:20 Mountain and islands removed again: And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found.
- Rev 21:10 John taken to a high mountain: And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,
Also note that people have different views on what is and isn’t literal in the book of Revelation, as well as their fulfilment. How people interpret the symbols and images depends on their general Bible hermeneutics and approach to eschatology. More about this next post when we consider the main interpretive views of Revelation.
Remember when looking at the different views and opinions to keep the big picture in mind: