Prophetic Apocalyptic Language
Note: This Position Paper has been contributed to this web site by Jim Gunter, firstname.lastname@example.org
Every day from pulpits across this land there is a lot said about Bible prophecy. And so I thought it only fitting that in the following essay we would also take a look into prophecy, but prophecy that is special in its nature. Yes, I am speaking of prophecy that is “apocalyptic” in nature. By apocalyptic prophecy, I mean prophecy that is not only colorful in style, but prophecy that speaks to imminent destruction and judgment. Moreover, in an examination of this prophecy, I believe we will also learn just how this particular language should affect our interpretation of the “new testament” scriptures. I would like to begin this little work with the citing of a Bible passage which employs that type of language:
“For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light.”
Sound familiar? Because there has been so much debate and discussion for such a long time on a perceived soon-to-come “end of the world,” it’s quite probable that someone right now is thinking:
“Why sure, those are the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:29, where He described what’s going to happen at the end of the world; that it will be the time when the sun and the moon are to cease shinning, and the stars are all going to fall from the sky, and Jesus comes back to the earth literally riding on the clouds of heaven!”
Now the above may have been your guess as to the passage cited, as well as your understanding of it. Well, good folks, if you had guessed Matthew 24:29 to be the passage I quoted, you would have been mistaken, because that was a quote from Isaiah 13:10, 13, which was spoken some 750 years before Jesus used this same kind of speech. My point being, that when we read this particular style of prophecy in the “new testament,” whether spoken by Jesus or written by one of the inspired writers, I believe it is imperative that we go to the original source of such language if we are to arrive at the true meaning of the passage under consideration! It is imperative because, as we just learned, this awesome, colorful, celestial imagery has its roots in the old covenant Scriptures, i.e., the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.
I sincerely believe that if we fail to educate ourselves in the true meaning of this language in its original old testament usage and context, then we are giving our minds over to the mercy of our imaginations. And of course, when that happens, we begin to “think” we see all sorts of things, that in actuality, we don’t really see at all. And this, of course, spawns all sorts of wild speculation and erroneous interpretations which preclude us from understanding the “true” message being conveyed by our Creator.
This reminds me of the story I heard about a “Christian comedian” some years back named Wendy Bagwell. Wendy was the guest of a friend of his who met with a group of “snake handlers” somewhere in the mountains of east Tennessee. Well, as you might have already guessed, it wasn’t long at all before these folks began to bring out the snakes and proceeded with what they considered “a showing of their faith” by engaging in all sorts of dancing maneuvers in the handling of these snakes. And as Wendy’s luck would have it, it wasn’t very long before their dancing and maneuvering had placed them in the position where they were now blocking the entrance door of the building. By this time, Wendy, being more than just a little scared, was ready to change his address, and fast! And so he immediately turned to his friend and asked him where the back door was, to which his friend replied, “They don’t have a back door.” Well, Wendy wasted no time in declaring, “Well, where do you reckon they want one?”
As the story goes, a few months later, Wendy was a guest on some radio talk show and was asked by the host in a joking manner:
“Now just why have you been going around telling folks this big lie about you seeing a 47 foot rattlesnake? You know there’s no such thing as a 47 foot rattlesnake!” Wendy’s response was, “But I didn’t lie! I really did see a 47 foot rattlesnake. Because if you take the 6 feet I saw, and then you add to that, the 41 feet I thought I saw, you’ve got a 47 foot rattlesnake!”
The words of Jesus in Matthew 24:29, I have found to be only one of many such “new testament” prophetic utterances that have the “old testament” scriptures as their original source. And for that reason, I would like to cite a few more of those “old testament” prophecies, and their fulfillments; prophecies which use the same kind of imagery described above. And I’d like to start with the one I cited at the beginning of this essay, and which was later drawn upon by Jesus in Matthew 24:29. Of course, I’m speaking of Isaiah 13. Please examine this prophecy with me and let us see what those words meant back when God utilized them for the “first” time. Because, if we can learn what they meant back then, we can know with certainty what they would mean when used later in the new testament scriptures of the 1st century, could we not?
Isaiah 13—-God’s Judgment on Babylon:
[vs. 1] “The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see…
[vs. 3] I have commanded My sanctified ones, I have also called My mighty ones for mine anger, even them that rejoice in my highness.
[vs. 4b] …The Lord of hosts mustereth the battle.
[vs. 5] They come from a far country, from the end of heaven, even the Lord and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land.
[vs. 6] Howl ye, for the day of the Lord is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty.
[vs. 7] Therefore shall all hands be faint, every man’s heart shall melt;
[vs. 8] And they shall be afraid; pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman travaileth; they shall be amazed one at another; their faces shall be as flames.
[vs. 9] Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
[vs. 10] For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof, will not give their light; the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.
[vs. 11] And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
[vs. 12] I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.
[vs. 13] Therefore, I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger…
[vs. 15] Everyone that is found will be thrust through, and everyone who is joined unto them shall fall by the sword.
[vs. 16] Their children shall also be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.
[vs. 17] Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, which shall not regard silver; and as for gold, they shall not delight in it.
[vs. 18] Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eye shall not spare children.
[vs. 19] And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
[vs. 20] It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there.”
Surely, we have no difficulty recognizing Isaiah’s prophecy here to be speaking of the judgment God was about to bring upon Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian empire. This prophecy, of course, was fulfilled in 538 B. C. when God’s mighty instrument of judgment—-the Medes—-brought total destruction upon that kingdom. Let us take note of a few remarkable things the Lord said would take place at that great judgment; a judgment that would include some spectacular celestial phenomena:
1. God spoke of the Medes, as “His sanctified ones,” from the end of heaven” [vss. 5].
2. God said the Medes would “come from a far country; from the end of heaven” [vs. 5].
3. Isaiah called that judgment “a destruction from the Almighty,” and that it would take place at a time he called “the Day of the Lord” [vs. 6].
4. God said that “every man’s heart will melt” and “their faces will be as flames” [vss. 7, 8].
5. He also prophesied that “the stars, including all the constellations would not give their light” [vs. 10].
6. “The sun would be darkened” [vs. 10].
7. “The moon would not give her light” [vs. 10].[vs. 11].
8. “The world would be punished for its evil” [vs. 11].
9. “The heavens would be shaken” [vs. 13].
10. “The earth would be moved from its place” [vs. 13].
Good folks, I believe that when considering the various elements described in this judgment on Babylon, there’s a lot I can learn about how God effects His will. And another very important thing I can learn is, the meaning of the very highly charged, highly symbolic, colorful language He employs in expressing His judgments.
Under 1, 2, and 3 above, we get another lesson about the manner in which our Father used men; often times “evil” men, to execute His judgments. First it should be remembered that the Medes were not Yahweh’s people. However, as we can see in this account He called them His “sanctified ones,” His “mighty ones.” In other words, God had “set apart” the Medes for His purpose. It was not at all uncommon for the Lord to speak of “evil” men as His servants in a context such as this! You may remember that when Yahweh pronounced judgment upon His own people, Judah, sending them away for 70 years of Babylonian captivity, He spoke of this same king, Nebuchadnezzar, as His servant [Jeremiah 25:9]. He was God’s servant in the sense that he was to be His (God’s) instrument of judgment on Judah, the very same way as Rome would be used by Jesus as His lethal instrument against Jerusalem and the Jewish nation in A. D. 70! Therefore, the reason for God applying the aforementioned terms to the Medes, was as He declared in vs. 3 “They would execute His anger.”
Please let us now take a closer look into the terrestrial and celestial phenomena described in numbers 4 through 10 above.
First let’s look at (4): Would any of us believe that we are to understand that the hearts of the Babylonians literally “melted” within their chests in this great conflict? Did God really intend for us to understand that men’s faces were literally “on fire?”
Then, under (5), (6), and (7):
Would any of us conclude from these statements, that all of the stars, constellations, the sun, and moon literaly ceased to shine during the Medes destruction of Babylon? Of course, the obvious answer is, no!
Now please consider (9) and (10): Does God really mean for us to understand that Heaven itself literally shook in this battle? And was the physical earth literally moved from its place in orbit around the sun?
Surely, any serious student of the Father’s word would answer, “No” to all of the above questions, for he recognizes that those marvelous, super-charged phenomena did not “literally” take place. My dear friends please think about this for a moment: If that spectacular display of celestial catastrophes literally took place at that time, do you realize that the very fabric of our planet would be no more? However, this is not to say that those things did not have a meaning, or that we should just overlook them. Oh no! Those things are very important to us, and they, indeed, did serve a most useful purpose! We all understand that they were symbolic of “some-thing” or “some-one!” But symbolic of what, or of whom? Well, I believe if we simply allow scripture to interpret scripture, then they will tell us exactly what those things symbolized.
The Beginning of Celestial Imagery:
The very first time the sun, moon, and stars were used as symbols in the scriptures, is found in Genesis 37:9-11. Do you recall the two dreams Joseph had as a lad? The first was a dream of the sheaves of wheat [vss. 5-8], where the sheaves of his brothers bowed down to his sheaf! Upon telling his brothers of the dream, they indicated by their response that they understood its meaning, vis., that Joseph would actually rule over them one day. We are all familiar with the narrative and how that came to pass, when Joseph, later, through Divine providence, became ruler in Egypt, second only to Pharoh in authority.
But it’s in the second dream of Joseph, where we gain the most insight into the symbols of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding Babylon. In Joseph’s second dream [vss. 9-11], the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. He related the dream to his father, Jacob, and also to his brothers. If you will look at vs. 10, you will see that Jacob knew exactly what the dream meant, for he immediately asked Joseph:
“Shall I and your mother, and your brothers actually bow down before you to the ground?”
Verse 11 says that Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, but that Jacob kept the saying in his mind, or heart. Yes, Jacob knew exactly what the dream meant. And, it’s also very clear from Jacob’s words, that he understood the sun, moon, and eleven stars of the dream to be “symbols!” And good folks, isn’t it interesting that we’re not left here to guess or speculate as to what the sun, moon and eleven stars symbolized? From the language, it’s clear that the sun symbolized the #1 authority figure—-Jacob—-the head of the family. The moon, being the lesser of the two great lights (because it reflected the light of the sun), symbolized the lesser or #2 authority figure—-Rachael—-Joseph’s mother. And finally, we see the eleven stars symbolized Joseph’s brothers; those of even lesser rank, who were the subjects under the higher authorities!
Folks, I have to say that this helps me immensely, when I see this same imagery used in our Isaiah 13 prophecy regarding “Babylon,” as well as other prophetic judgments of God against nations, kings, governments, or dynasties—-yea even against His own people, Israel!
And so, by having an understanding of these “symbols,” we are now in a better position to understand the Isaiah 13 prophecy of Babylon. Obviously, the sun must be symbolic of one of the greatest authority, king Nebuchadnezzar, with the moon indicative of those of lesser rank, but close to him in authority. Then, the stars and constellations; his leaders lesser in rank, such as his generals, servants, and finally his citizenry, which ultimately would mean his entire kingdom!
God Punishes the World:
I don’t know if you noticed or not, but there is one little verse in Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Babylon, on which I have not yet commented.
And that is verse 11, which is under item No. 8 in the above list of 10. It reads:
“And I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity…”
One could rightly ask, “Does this mean that God punished the whole world in His judgment on Babylon?” Well, perhaps this may come as a surprise, but I would answer, “Yes,” it certainly does, when one understands “the world,” of which God spoke! The Hebrew word for the English word “world” here, is “tebel,” and according to Strong’s #8398 it is pronounced “tay-bale.” Mr. Strong defines it, “spec. a particular land, as Babylonia etc.” And so, with an understanding of “Babylon’s” world, it provides us with further insight into determining just what God meant when He spoke the Isaiah 13 prophecy concerning Babylon. It is now very clear to me, that He was going to punish their (Babylon’s) “world” for its evil [vs. 11]. Yahweh had determined that it was time for wicked Babylon’s world to come to an end.
I believe it bears mentioning here that in vs. 6 of this prophecy, we find a term characterized by the prophets as, the Day of the Lord,” a term that is frequently employed when speaking of the time and execution of God’s judgments. And this proves to be quite relevant when we come to the word “judgment” and “Day of the Lord” in the “new testament” prophecies! For example, I once understood John’s reference to his “being in the spirit on the Lord’s Day” of Revelation 1:10, to simply have reference to “the first day of the week.” However, I have since come to understand that somewhat differently, simply because of the context in which John is writing. Judging from the context of the things John is about to be shown, I just cannot see the relevance of “the first day of the week.” However, I do see tremendous relevance if he is referencing, “The Day of the Lord,” i. e. that day (period of time) around which the Apocalypse is centered. I think it is imperative that we keep in mind that John is about to be given a special privilege of seeing into the immediate future, things concerning Jesus’ victory over, and judgment of all His enemies; things which the Lord said, “must shortly come to pass,” because “the time is (was) at hand” at the very time John wrote those things, which I believe was approximately 65-68 A.D. which was only 2-5 years before Jerusalem fell. [Revelation 1:1, 3; Revelation 22:6, 10, 20].
Isaiah 19—God’s Judgment on Egypt:
At this time, let us now move on as we continue with the old testament accounts of Yahweh’s judgment poured out upon the ancient evil empires. The next one I would like to cite would be that of Egypt, which was prophesied by Isaiah in Isaiah, chapters 19 & 20. Beginning with 19:1, 2, the Lord said:
[vs. 1] “An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt and the hearts of the Egyptians shall melt within them.
[vs. 2] And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight each against another, and each against his neighbor….
[vs. 4] and I will give over the Egyptians into the hand of a hard master, and a fierce king will rule over them, declares the Lord God of hosts….”
[20:3, 4] “Then the Lord said, ‘As Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt.’
I’m sure you already know that this prophecy was fulfilled in about 480 B. C., when Egypt was defeated by the king of Assyria, who then led them away to captivity. In light of our study, perhaps the most important thing here for us, is that we find more of that colorful imagery and apocalyptic language employed. For example, notice the things of verse 1:
[vs. 1] “The hearts of the Egyptians will melt within them.”
If you remember, in the prophecy concerning Babylon, we read the same thing regarding those people. I think by now we understand the expression, “their hearts melting within them,” was not meant to be taken literally at all. But clearly, it was for the purpose of conveying to the reader (especially the Israelite reader), a feeling of despair and hopelessness on the part of the Egyptians, as God wielded the sword of His judgment (the Assyrians) against them. Indeed, all hope for them was completely gone! Just as in the case of Babylon, so it was for Egypt in this prophecy of their judgment.
Yahweh Rides on the Clouds:
Again, from verse 1, just what would you suppose we are to think regarding “The Lord’s coming” described here in this spectacular visual of His “riding into Egypt on a swift cloud?” Does anyone believe this expression means that the Egyptians received a literal, spectacular, panoramic view of Yahweh riding across the Egyptian skies on a fast-moving cloud at “His coming?” Or does this awesome sight actually “symbolize” something else instead? Perhaps if we look at a few other old covenant passages, where “clouds” are used in such fashion, they may give us a little more insight into this awesome portrait that Isaiah paints here.
Leviticus 16:2: Here the Lord instructs Moses regarding the manner in which Aaron was to perform his duties as High Priest on the annual “Day of Atonement.” God said:
“Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark, that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.”
It seems to me that this verse is rather straight-forward and speaks for itself. In my view, the “cloud” clearly suggests the “presence” of the Lord. The “cloud” also concealed God; otherwise, Aaron would have been destroyed by His glory!
Psalms 97:1-6: David writes:
“The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof. Clouds and darkness are round about him: Righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne. A fire goeth before Him, and burneth up His enemies round about. His lightnings enlighten the world: the earth saw, and trembled. The hills melted like wax at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth. The heavens declare his righteousness, and all the people see his glory.”
In this Psalm, David speaks of “God’s judgment on His enemies.” David, not unlike the other prophets, spoke by the Spirit of God, and uses very similar colorful, yet frightful language to convey to Israel God’s power as the Judge of all men and nations. It’s also very interesting that David depicts God’s throne as being encompassed by “clouds” to signify here, not only God’s “presence,” but also His majesty, glory, and power in judgment.
Nahum 1:1-3: God Judges Nineveh:
“The oracle of Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; The Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In whirlwind and storm is His way. And, clouds are the dust beneath His feet.”
As we clearly see here, David describes “clouds” as the dust beneath the feet of our Great Creator.
“He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters; He makes the clouds His chariot; He walks upon the wings of the wind.”
“From the brightness before him, passed His thick clouds, hailstones and coals of fire, The Lord also thundered in the heavens. And the Most High uttered His voice…”
As we see in these marvelous passages from the “old covenant” writings, “clouds” were used extensively in prophecies concerning judgment to symbolize God’s “presence” or His “coming” in those judgments! So far, we have read of His coming to Egypt “riding on a swift cloud.” Then we saw Nahum describing His coming with the clouds in judgment on Nineveh, with clouds depicted as the “dust beneath His feet.” And then David describes the “clouds” as being “God’s chariot.”
Good folks, I really believe we have established quite convincingly, that all the marvelous celestial imagery that was displayed in those old testament prophecies of judgment, is not to be understood as literal “heavenly” calamities, but rather as signs and symbols. And as we have also seen, the meanings of the signs and symbols found in prophetic speech can most accurately be explained by what we see in the “fulfillments” of those prophecies. “Clouds” were indeed very conspicuous in those judgments of God.
NOTE: This Position Paper will be continued in the next Position Paper, #15A. I am unable to place all of this Position Paper in one document due to restrictions with my equipment and software that is used to build this web site.