The Rest of the Story –

Apocalyptic writings
in the Old Testament

Ezekiel 38:1-23
Isaiah 24:1-23
Daniel 7:1-28
Daniel 8:1-27
Zechariah 12:1-9, 13:1-2, 14:16-21

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Story 20, The Queen of Beauty and Courage. I feel like we have done the book of Esther practically verse by verse, so I don’t want to do it again this week. Instead we are going to look at a literature form developed during the Exile, Apocalyptic Literature.

Meantime, here’s a quick summary of the book of Esther. The Jews are in exile in Persia (which has conquered Babylon). Queen Vashti embarrasses King Ahasuerus in front of his guests, so he throws her out and holds a beauty contest to choose a new queen. Mordecai, a Jew, has an orphaned young cousin, Esther. Mordecai enters Esther in the contest, probably because, to be honest, being one of the king's junior wives provides comfortable life-long security for an orphan. Mordecai instructs her not to tell anyone she is Jewish. Esther wins the contest and becomes queen. Mordecai hears about a plot to assassinate the king, and he tells Esther (by sending messages through the eunuchs – the first email), and she tells the king. The king orders that Mordecai be honored. Meantime, Haman, the king's chief advisor, really hates Mordecai because he won't bow down to him. In fact, he hates all the Jews. He gets the king to sign a decree that on a certain day, anybody in the kingdom can kill his Jewish neighbors and take everything they own. He builds a gallows for Mordecai. Mordecai suggests that Esther might want to do something about the decree. Esther asks King Ahasuerus for a favor – please come to dinner and bring Haman. Then she asks for another favor – come again tomorrow, both of you. Haman is about to burst with pride. The king is full of good food and good wine, prepared and served by his queen, the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Esther accuses Haman, and the king finds him guilty and hangs him. Afterwards, the king promotes Mordecai and signs an additional decree that says the Jews can fight back. The Jewish people are saved. (2007)

Ezekiel 38:1-23 (2/4/13)

Around the time of the Exile, a new literary form arose among the writers of the Old Testament: apocalyptic writing, or just plain “apocalyptic.” This week we’re going to look briefly at the major Old Testament examples of apocalyptic, which are in Ezekiel, Daniel, and a bit of Isaiah and Zechariah.

The first thing to know about apocalyptic is that it is not prophecy. Modern readers very often confuse the two, mostly, I think, because both can contain vivid images. Both tell what God is going to do. That’s about it for similarities.

Whereas prophecy talks about what God is going to do in and through the historical process, however, apocalyptic says that God is finished with the historical process! God is going to break into the historical process! History will end, and on that day God will fight a terrible battle with Evil and remake the cosmos to suit Himself! This is a pretty scary thought for most of us, and a careful reading of apocalyptic shows that most of it is pretty scary, with vast armies, demons and archangels, horrible beasts, and both earthly and heavenly cataclysms. And of course, no apocalypse is complete without war, famine, pestilence, and death.

It is not a coincidence that apocalyptic writing is prominent in times when the people of God are suffering terrible persecution. Prophecy says, “There’s still enough time for the people of God to change their own history. Do it!” Apocalyptic says, “Too late! Only God can fix this, and most likely only by ending history altogether.” The good news is that the people of God will be completely safe. Eventually.

Isaiah 24:1-23 (2/5/13)

I’m sure you are familiar with a movie or book that is “post-apocalyptic.” Society has collapsed. Technology has either reverted to the stone age or has run amok, depending on the tastes of the writer. The population is depleted. Cities lie in ruins. The party’s over.

Surprisingly enough, this is a fairly accurate depiction of the situation “after the apocalypse” in Biblical apocalyptic writing. Apocalyptic is a tract for hard times – right now something terrible is happening to us as part of the historical process, but you should see what’s going to happen to the other guy when God steps into history on the great and terrible day of the LORD!

Because you know the thing about post-apocalyptic books and movies? The hero or heroine has survived.

Daniel 7:1-28 (2/6/13)

We all know the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, and we’ve all sweated with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. Did you know that the last half of the book of Daniel is apocalyptic? One of the differences between prophecy and apocalyptic is that in prophecy, the word of the LORD is normally heard. In apocalyptic, the message from God normally comes in the form of a vision, and that’s how it came to Daniel.

Apocalyptic writing is sort of like political cartoons. If we here in America see a political cartoon of a donkey and an elephant, as I did just the other day, we know that the cartoon is not about animals. The donkey is the Democratic party, and the elephant is the Republican party. We know that. Do you suppose archeologists in the distant future will know that? Maybe, maybe not. In the same way, apocalyptic writing was clear to its contemporary audience, although sometimes we aren’t so sure now what the symbols represent. Typically nearly all scholars agree on some symbols, and many scholars disagree about others. When we are very lucky, the symbols are explained, as in Daniel 7:17, where we learn that the four terrible beasts represent four kingdoms. Other clear symbols in this passage are the Ancient of Days, God; the saints, God’s people; and the “one like a son of man,” the Messiah.

Nearly all scholars agree that most of the symbols in apocalyptic represent persons, places, or things that existed in the same time period or the near future of when the books were written. Remember: apocalyptic writing is telling persecuted people that times are indeed terrible now, but God will break into history and solve the world’s problems, as in Daniel 7:18.

Daniel 8:1-27 (2/7/13)

In apocalyptic writing, there is a seer, who sees the vision but doesn’t understand what’s going on. In our reading today, this is Daniel. There is also an interpreter, who explains to the seer what the symbols mean, or at least what some of the symbols mean. (Remember that the people for whom the material was written already knew some of the symbols.) The interpreter in today’s passage is the archangel Gabriel.

Another thing to watch for in apocalyptic is the “sealing” of the message. Most scholars agree that this is a signal that the apocalyptic message was actually written at the time it is talking about, even though it claims to have been written at an earlier time and “sealed.” So in vss. 20 to 22, this passage is actually talking about Alexander the Great, who conquered the Medes and Persians, just like it says, in 334 BC. Alexander died young, and his enormous empire was divided among his four generals, just like it says. This was very bad for the Jews, because Palestine was conquered and reconquered by two of the resulting kingdoms. The Greeks, starting with Alexander, attempted to force conquered nations to adopt the Greek customs and language. Many Jews resisted this trend, which typically brought more persecution, especially religious persecution, as in vss. 11-14. Nevertheless, “at the end” all these oppressors are going to get what’s coming to them when God intervenes in history.

By the way, apocalyptic writing was very popular for the best part of a thousand years. Scholars have lots of example to look at, most of which are not part of the Bible.

Zechariah 12:1-9, 13:1-2, 14:16-21 (2/8/13)

This passage from Zechariah has no fearsome beasts or archangels, and it doesn’t have much in the way of symbols. What it does have is the repeated refrain “on that day.” God is going to break into history on that day. God’s people will be an example and a beacon to the other nations on that day. God’s people, who are currently under siege by their enemies, will be vindicated on that great and terrible day of the LORD!

More of The Rest of the Story
Week 1. Beginning of Life As We Know It
Week 1. More on the Beginning of Life As We Know It
Week 2. God Builds a Nation – Abraham … But Not Lot
Week 2. God Builds a Nation – Isaac…But not Ishmael or the sons of Keturah
Week 2. God Builds a Nation – Jacob…But not Esau
Week 3. Joseph Preserves Two Nations
Week 4. Deliverance
Week 4. More on Deliverance
Week 5. New Commands and a New Covenant
Week 6. Wandering
Week 6. More on the Wandering
Week 7. The Battle Begins
Week 8. A Few Good Men...and Women
Week 9. The Faith of a Foreign Woman
Week 10. Standing Tall, Falling Hard
Week 11. From Shepherd to King
Week 12. The Trials of a King
Week 13. The King Who Had It All
Week 14. A Kingdom Torn in Two
Weeks 15 and 16. God's Messengers and The Beginning of the End
Week 17. The Kingdoms' Fall
Jeremiah, Prophet of the Exile
Story 19. The Return Home
Apocalyptic writings in the Old Testament
Story 21. Rebuilding the Walls
Story 22. The Birth of the King
Story 23. Jesus’ Ministry Begins
Story 24. No Ordinary Man
Story 25. Jesus, the Son of God
Story 26. The Hour of Darkness
Story 27. The Resurrection
Story 28. New Beginnings
James, Brother of the Lord
John and Jude
Story 31. The End of Time

Copyright 2013 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by RPB.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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