How to read Revelation and apocalyptic literature – Ezekiel 38 & 39, Part 2

When you think of that word apocalyptic, what comes to mind?   The Apocalypse!  The end of the world, right?  A massive destructive event in which most or all people die.  In our day and age, we think of something like a full-scale nuclear war.  Or we think of a giant asteroid smashing into the earth, causing global devastation, like the movies Armageddon or the one that just came out, Don’t Look Up.  This is the stuff of Hollywood.  There are a handful of these kinds of movies and TV shows every year.  Maybe you saw the commercials for the recent film Moonfall, in which the moon crashes into earth. 

There is a name for this kind of literature and media. Apocalyptic. The biblical book of Revelation is likely the most famous and longest example of apocalyptic literature.  In fact in the original language in which it was written, ancient Greek, the name of the book of Revelation is “The Apocalypse.”  In Greek, the word apocalypse means “the revealing,” which is why we call that book “The Revelation.”  It refers to the idea that in this apocalyptic story, a revealing is happening.  Something hidden is coming to light.  God’s plans are being revealed.  Over the centuries the word apocalyptic took on the meaning of global disaster because of the content of the vision in the book of Revelation, but the word apocalyptic did not originally carry the idea of destruction.  It simply means “a revealing.”

Just as we need to have a proper understanding of the word apocalyptic, we also need to understand how to read apocalyptic literature.  I used to think that we could read the book of Revelation the same way that we read a newspaper or watch headline news on TV or online.  News media report current events, trying to give us the literal facts.  They tell us what is happening around the world right now.  I used to think that we should read Revelation that way.  If the book of Revelation told us about a fire-breathing horse, it wasn’t trying to describe a literal fire-breathing horse.  Sure, God could create fire-breathing horses if he wanted to.  But in our world, they don’t exist.  So what I used to think was that we just need to get in the mind of an ancient person who was seeing something from our day and age.  The writer of Revelation, John, I thought, had no idea how to describe what he was seeing, because he was seeing, through the vision, very advanced technology of the contemporary era.  Think about it.  If you are John, living in the first century, and you see a vision of a soldier from 2022 riding on an armored tank as it fires its gun, the best you can do to describe what you are seeing is “it looks like a fire-breathing horse.”  You can do that for the entire book of Revelation, speculating on what modern-era technology that vision might have been showing John 2000 years ago.  What I now realize is that if I read Revelation that way, or if I read any apocalyptic literature that way, I’m not reading apocalyptic literature correctly. 

Apocalyptic literature is not meant to be literal, it is symbolic.  If John saw a fire-breathing horse, then he probably saw a fire-breathing horse, but that horse was a fictional creature meant to be symbol for something else.  When you read apocalyptic literature, you have to do the hard work of discerning what the symbols might point to. A fire-breathing horse, for example, might simply mean “judgment”.

It is highly likely that Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39 are another apocalyptic section of the Bible.  Both Ezekiel 38-39 and Revelation include very similar imagery that could be interpreted as a future literal global war, but it could also be interpreted figuratively. That’s why I believe it is best to read these chapters 38 and 39 of Ezekiel like we read the book of Revelation and other sections of the Bible that talk about the future.

In the previous post, we started reading Ezekiel 38, where God tells Ezekiel to perform the Prophetic Stare against a mysterious person named Gog from Magog, who is some kind of prince. Then God tells Ezekiel to speak a prophecy against him. In verses 3-6, the prophecy describes the armies of Gog, Magog and their allies, armed to the teeth.

The rest of Ezekiel chapter 38 describes how the global armies of Gog will amass against Israel, but the Lord will wipe them out those armies.  The passage reads very similarly to Revelation 20, which we studied in the previous post.  While there is death and destruction all over the world, God comes to Israel’s defense and wins the victory.  Stories about God winning in the end can give us comfort in a scary mixed up world. But if we’re not living in the end times, and we don’t feel like God is winning right now, these stories in Revelation 20 and Ezekiel 38 might feel very distant.

At the end of Ezekiel chapter 38, God says something fascinating, something that matters greatly to us now. We’ll look at that in the next post.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids and two daughters-in-law. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

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