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Apocalyptic Language

Behold, the day of the LORD comes,


Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger,
To lay the land desolate;
And He will destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not give their light;
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
And the moon will not cause its light to shine.
Therefore I will shake the heavens,
And the earth will move out of her place,
In the wrath of the LORD of hosts
And in the day of His fierce anger.”
“The earth quakes before them,
The heavens tremble;
The sun and moon grow dark,
And the stars diminish their brightness.
Recognize these passages about the Tribulation? Are they from the Lord’s Olivet discourse, or the
book of Revelation? Sorry, those are trick questions, which isn’t fair. But don’t they sound like a
description of the Tribulation? Compare:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not
give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Matt
24:29
I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun
became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. Rev 6:12
Then the fourth angel sounded: And a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third
of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day did not shine, and likewise
the night. Rev 8:12
Then the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His
temple. And there were lightnings, noises, thunderings, an earthquake, and great hail. Rev 11:19
Amazing similarities, aren’t there? Our opening Old Testament passage was from Isaiah 13,
describing the Medes overthrowing the Babylonians. The second was from Joel 2. Let’s look closer at
Isaiah 13. Points to be emphasized have a bold font:
The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw.
“Lift up a banner on the high mountain,
Raise your voice to them;
Wave your hand, that they may enter the gates of the nobles.
I have commanded My sanctified ones;
I have also called My mighty ones for My anger;
Those who rejoice in My exaltation.”
The noise of a multitude in the mountains,
Like that of many people!
A tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations gathered together!
The LORD of hosts musters
The army for battle.
They come from a far country,
From the end of heaven;
The LORD and His weapons of indignation,
To destroy the whole land.
Wail, for the day of the LORD is at hand!
It will come as destruction from the Almighty.
Therefore all hands will be limp,
Every man’s heart will melt,
And they will be afraid.
Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them;
They will be in pain as a woman in childbirth;
They will be amazed at one another;
Their faces will be like flames.
Behold, the day of the LORD comes,
Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger,
To lay the land desolate;
And He will destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not give their light;
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
And the moon will not cause its light to shine.
“I will punish the world for its evil,
And the wicked for their iniquity;
I will halt the arrogance of the proud,
And will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
I will make a mortal more rare than fine gold,
A man more than the golden wedge of Ophir.
Therefore I will shake the heavens,
And the earth will move out of her place,
In the wrath of the LORD of hosts
And in the day of His fierce anger.
It shall be as the hunted gazelle,
And as a sheep that no man takes up;
Every man will turn to his own people,
And everyone will flee to his own land.
Everyone who is found will be thrust through,
And everyone who is captured will fall by the sword.
Their children also will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; Their houses will be plundered
And their wives ravished.
“Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them,
Who will not regard silver;
And as for gold, they will not delight in it.
Also their bows will dash the young men to pieces,
And they will have no pity on the fruit of the womb;
Their eye will not spare children.
And Babylon , the glory of kingdoms,
The beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride,
Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah .
It will never be inhabited,
Nor will it be settled from generation to generation;
Nor will the Arabian pitch tents there,
Nor will the shepherds make their sheepfolds there.
But wild beasts of the desert will lie there,
And their houses will be full of owls;
Ostriches will dwell there,
And wild goats will caper there.
The hyenas will howl in their citadels,
And jackals in their pleasant palaces.
Her time is near to come,
And her days will not be prolonged.”
We note two things here. First, God is said to muster nations from the end of heaven to deliver
judgment upon the Babylonians. Thus God is delivering His judgment through foreign armies. Second,
when we read this passage, especially the items in bold, do we believe that all of them literally happened
when the Medes and Persians overthrew Babylon ? We’ve never heard it taught that way. Consider Albert
Barnes’ commentary:
Isaiah 13:8. They shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth This comparison is often used in
the Scriptures to denote the deepest possible pain and sorrow, as well as the suddenness with
which any calamity comes upon a people
Isaiah 13:10. For the stars of heaven This verse cannot be understood literally, but is a
metaphorical representation of the calamities that were coming upon Babylon . The meaning of
the figure evidently is, that those calamities would be such as would be appropriately denoted by
the sudden extinguishment of the stars, the sun, and the moon. As nothing would tend more to
anarchy, distress, and ruin, than thus to have all the lights of heaven suddenly and forever
quenched, this was an apt and forcible representation of the awful calamities that were coming
upon the people. Darkness and night, in the Scriptures, are often the emblem of calamity and
distress. The revolutions and destructions of kingdoms and nations are often represented in the
Scriptures under this image. (Barnes’ Notes)
That certainly seems plausible. But then the question arises, if these explanations are plausible here,
why not in Matthew 24 and the book of Revelation? In the many prophetic Old Testament passages with
similar language, there appears to be no controversy over their fulfillment just because theologians have
found no historical evidence for the “earth being moved from its place; the sun, moon and stars not
giving forth their light; the heavens being rolled together as a scroll, etc.” Yet in spite of this scriptural
precedent for non-literal interpretations of apocalyptic language, many theologians assign literal
interpretations to this same language in the New Testament when it is associated with the Second
Coming. Added to this is the fact that the timing passages, which we earlier demonstrated are to be read at
face value, are applied to some future generation. It seems that many in the church, when interpreting the
Second Coming passages, have ignored Biblical precedent in two areas:—1) apocalyptic language (which
determines the nature of His return); and—2) the imminency, or timing phrases. Lest the reader think that
this scriptural precedent of apocalyptic language consists of only a couple of passages, consider the
following:
All the host of heaven shall be dissolved,
And the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll;
All their host shall fall down
As the leaf falls from the vine,
And as fruit falling from a fig tree.
Isa 34:4 [concerning the destruction of Idumea]
“When I put out your light,
I will cover the heavens, and make its stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
And the moon shall not give her light.
All the bright lights of the heavens I will make dark over you, And bring darkness upon your
land,”
Says the Lord GOD. Ezek 32:7-8
[concerning the destruction of Pharaoh, king of Egypt .]
The earth quakes before them,
The heavens tremble;
The sun and moon grow dark,
And the stars diminish their brightness.
The sun and moon will grow dark,
And the stars will diminish their brightness.
The LORD also will roar from Zion ,
And utter His voice from Jerusalem ;
The heavens and earth will shake;
But the LORD will be a shelter for His people,
And the strength of the children of Israel . Joel 2:10; 3:15-16 [The Lord, concerning the
judgment of His enemies.]
“And it shall come to pass in that day,” says the Lord GOD, “That I will make the sun go down
at noon ,
And I will darken the earth in broad daylight . . . .” Amos 8:9 [The Lord, concerning judgment
against the house of Jacob.]
Then David spoke to the LORD the words of this song, on the day when the LORD had delivered
him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. And he said:
“The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer;
The God of my strength, in whom I will trust;
My shield and the horn of my salvation,
My stronghold and my refuge;
My Savior, You save me from violence.
I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised;
So shall I be saved from my enemies.
When the waves of death surrounded me,
The floods of ungodliness made me afraid.
The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called upon the LORD,
And cried out to my God;
He heard my voice from His temple,
And my cry entered His ears.
Then the earth shook and trembled;
The foundations of heaven quaked and were shaken,
Because He was angry.
Smoke went up from His nostrils,
And devouring fire from His mouth;
Coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down
With darkness under His feet.
He rode upon a cherub, and flew;
And He was seen upon the wings of the wind.
He made darkness canopies around Him,
Dark waters and thick clouds of the skies.
From the brightness before Him
Coals of fire were kindled.
The LORD thundered from heaven,
And the Most High uttered His voice.
He sent out arrows and scattered them;
Lightning bolts, and He vanquished them.
Then the channels of the sea were seen,
The foundations of the world were uncovered,
At the rebuke of the LORD,
At the blast of the breath of His nostrils.
He sent from above, He took me,
He drew me out of many waters.
He delivered me from my strong enemy,
From those who hated me;
For they were too strong for me.” 2 Samuel 22:1-18 [David’s description of the Lord delivering
him from his enemies and the hand of King Saul] (Further reading: Ps 68:7-9; 144:5-6; Hab 3;
Mic 1:3-4;)
Are you beginning to see a pattern emerging? The Jews used a very symbolic, figurative language
when describing momentous events, such as battle victories, deliverance from enemies, nations falling,
etc. In the preceding chapters of 2 Samuel, where the victories that David sings this song of praise about
are recorded, there is no mention of any of these apocalyptic events literally happening. This is merely the
literary style for describing God’s judgment, whether predictive, or after the fact.
Is there any reason to think that this literary style changed in the New Testament? Is there scriptural
precedent to support a change? In light of what we have seen concerning John the Baptist’s fulfilling
prophecy in a non-literal (non-physical) manner, it appears that this linguistic form was still used in
Christ’s day. Notice this phrase from 2 Samuel 22:11:
And He was seen upon the wings of the wind
Was God literally seen? Did they see the “smoke from His nostrils” (v.9)? If we can accept that this is
just typical of the Jewish figurative/apocalyptic language, then what about the following?
Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him.
Isn’t “coming with clouds” a lot like being “upon the wings of the wind”? Aside from our own personal
desire, is there any reason to believe that “every eye will see Him” is any different from “He was seen
upon the wings of the wind”? What do you think—is the last verse figurative as well? Be careful how you
answer, because the last verse is not from the Old Testament, it is Revelation 1:7. Now what do you
think? Have we gone from being figurative to being literal? If so, when did the change take place? We
have already established the figurative language in the example of John the Baptist. In fact, a similar
passage was fulfilled by John the Baptist, of which it was prophesied that “The glory of the Lord shall be
revealed, and all flesh shall see it together (Isa 40:5).” How is that any different than “every eye shall see
him . . .”? If the Jews had for centuries used this kind of language for national upheaval, should there not
have been some instruction to the people that the same kind of language in the Olivet discourse and the
book of Revelation was to now be taken literally? We are talking about a major change in the linguistics
of a nation. Put yourself in the place of one of the disciples. You were raised on the Old Testament. Every
time you hear about the sun going dark and the stars not shining, it’s associated with the fall of a nation.
Now Jesus has just said that the temple would be destroyed. He wept over the city because the people did
not know the time of their visitation. And He says that immediately after the tribulation of those days
(during which the temple would be destroyed) the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its
light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Just as in the Old
Testament, apocalyptic language is associated with God’s judgment. If you are one of the disciples, do
you take that to mean that the sun will really be darkened, or do you think, “He’s talking about an event as
serious as what happened to those nations in the Old Testament”? Remember your Jewish mindset and
background, and the fact that you have heard nothing that says that this is any different. Do you think that
the disciples thought Jesus was talking about literal astronomical phenomena, or serious judgment? Or
imagine for a moment that amongst Jesus’ audience were the authors of the Old Testament passages
previously discussed; Samuel, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, et. al. How do you suppose that they would have
understood this very familiar language as Jesus taught?
If the apocalyptic language associated with judgment in the Old Testament was never interpreted in a
literal manner, shouldn’t Jesus have told His listeners, and the author of Revelation his readers, that this
same apocalyptic language was to now be taken in a literal sense? Consider again this chapter’s opening
passage from Isaiah, and how closely the language parallels that of Revelation, in the table on the
following pages:

Isaiah 13 Revelation
The Lord’s using the Medes to punish The Lord’s using the Roman army to punish
Babylon Israel (spiritual Babylon )

Rev 16:14 For they are spirits of demons,


4 The noise of a multitude in the mountains, performing signs, which go out to the kings of
Like that of many people! the earth and of the whole world, to gather
A tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations them to the battle of that great day of God
gathered together! Almighty.
The LORD of hosts musters
Rev 19:19 And I saw the beast, the kings of the
The army for battle.
5 They come from a far country, earth, and their armies, gathered together to
From the end of heaven– make war against Him who sat on the horse
The LORD and His weapons of indignation, and against His army.
To destroy the whole land.

6 Wail, for the day of the LORD is at hand! Rev 6:15-17 And the kings of the earth, the
It will come as destruction from the Almighty. great men, the rich men, the commanders, the
7 Therefore all hands will be limp, mighty men, every slave and every free man,
Every man’s heart will melt, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of
8 And they will be afraid. the mountains, and said to the mountains and
Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them; rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of
They will be in pain as a woman in childbirth; Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath
They will be amazed at one another; of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has
Their faces will be like flames. come, and who is able to stand?”
Rev 9:6 “In those days men will seek death and
will not find it; they will desire to die, and
death will flee from them.”

9 Behold, the day of the LORD comes,


Rev 11:18 The nations were angry, and Your
Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger,
wrath has come,
To lay the land desolate;
And He will destroy its sinners from it. And the time of the dead, that they should be
judged,
And that You should reward Your servants the
prophets and the saints,
And those who fear Your name, small and
great,
And should destroy those who destroy the
earth.”

10 For the stars of heaven and their


Rev 6:12 -13 I looked when He opened the
constellations
sixth seal, and behold, there was a great
Will not give their light;
earthquake; and the sun became black as
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like
And the moon will not cause its light to shine.
blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth,
as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken
by a mighty wind.

Rev 8:12 Then the fourth angel sounded: And a


third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon,
and a third of the stars, so that a third of them
were darkened. A third of the day did not shine,
and likewise the night.

13 Therefore I will shake the heavens,


Rev 6:14 Then the sky receded as a scroll when
And the earth will move out of her place,
it is rolled up, and every mountain and island
In the wrath of the LORD of hosts
was moved out of its place.
And in the day of His fierce anger.

15 Everyone who is found will be thrust


Rev 19:21 And the rest were killed with the
through,
sword which proceeded from the mouth of Him
And everyone who is captured will fall by the
who sat on the horse. And all the birds were
sword.
filled with their flesh.
19 And Babylon , the glory of kingdoms, Rev 18:21 -22 Then a mighty angel took up a
The beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride, stone like a great millstone and threw it into the
Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and sea, saying, “Thus with violence the great city
Gomorrah . Babylon shall be thrown down, and shall not be
20 It will never be inhabited, found anymore.”
Nor will it be settled from generation to
generation;
Nor will the Arabian pitch tents there, Rev 18:8 Therefore her plagues will come in
Nor will the shepherds make their sheepfolds one day—death and mourning and famine. And
there. she will be utterly burned with fire, for strong
is the Lord God who judges her.
21 But wild beasts of the desert will lie there, Rev 18:2 And he cried mightily with a loud
And their houses will be full of owls; voice, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is
Ostriches will dwell there, fallen, and has become a dwelling place of
And wild goats will caper there. demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a
22 The hyenas will howl in their citadels, cage for every unclean and hated bird!
And jackals in their pleasant palaces.
Her time is near to come, Rev 18:9-10 The kings of the earth who
And her days will not be prolonged. committed fornication and lived luxuriously
with her will weep and lament for her, when
they see the smoke of her burning, standing at a
distance for fear of her torment, saying, “Alas,
alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city!
For in one hour your judgment has come.”

Is it so far-fetched to think that the book of Revelation is an extensive prophecy of the destruction of
Jerusalem , written in the established style of Jewish prophetic language? In fact, some have noted that
only John’s Gospel does not contain a record of Christ’s Olivet discourse, which has obvious allusions to
the destruction of Jerusalem . They suggest that Revelation is John’s divinely inspired, expanded version
of what Christ delivered on the Mount of Olives . As Russell notes:
Even a slight comparison of the two documents, the prophecy and the Apocalypse, will suffice to
show the correspondence between them. The dramatis personae, if we may so call them,—the
symbols which enter into the composition of both,—are the same. What do we find in our Lord’s
prophecy? First and chiefly the Parousia; then wars, famines, pestilence, earthquakes; false
prophets and deceivers; signs and wonders; the darkening of the sun and moon; the stars falling
from heaven; angels and trumpets, eagles and carcases, great tribulation and woe; convulsions of
nature; the treading down of Jerusalem; the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven; the
gathering of the elect; the reward of the faithful; the judgment of the wicked. And are not these
precisely the elements which compose the Apocalypse? This cannot be accidental resemblance,—
it is coincidence, it is identity. What difference there is in the treatment of the subject arises from
the difference in the method of the revelation. The prophecy is addressed to the ear, and the
Apocalypse to the eye: the one is a discourse delivered in broad day, amid the realities of actual
life,—the other is a vision, beheld in a state of ecstasy, clothed in gorgeous imagery, with an air of
unreality as in objects seen in a dream; requiring it to be translated back into the language of
everyday life before it can be intelligible as actual fact. (pp. 375-376, The Parousia)
If we were to take some of the individual Old Testament verses we have discussed, and similar verses
from New Testament prophecy, strip them of their references, and pull them from a hat one at a time, one
wonders, how would we determine which are literal and which are symbolic in fulfillment? Aren’t they
all describing national calamities? Aren’t they all “seeing” the Lord come in judgment in the guise of
foreign armies? Aren’t they all describing these events in earth-moving, heaven-falling terms? What
happened between the times of the Old Testament apocalyptic language and Jesus’ Olivet discourse
(which we are taught is literal) that completely changed the Jewish style and understanding of prophetic
language? In this we fear that we have gone beyond putting the veil back on, for even the Jews
understood the nature of this language.

The previous is a chapter from the book: Behind the Veil of Moses, by Brian L.
Martin.