Literary Genre: Prophecy and Apocalyptic

Literary genre is a category of written works. Recognizing the type of writing prepares one for how to read and observe the text. For example, prophecy is a category of writings of the major and minor prophets of the Bible who exhorted the nation of Israel to be true to their covenant promises.

Apocalyptic literature is included in this genre, because the prophets (i.e. Daniel, etc.) and the apostles (i.e. John, etc.) received visions that "revealed" the future of last days. This period of time is the last attempt by God to encourage people to restore their relationship with Him before final judgment takes place.

There are lots of examples of this genre: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and Revelation.

Recognizing some characteristics of this genre will help you read and understand it. What's the main problem? What images or figures of speech are used? What does it say about God? Why did God include this in the Bible?

1. Prophets, in their tireless call to Israel to remember their covenant, would pronounce God's judgment for Israel's failure to uphold their part of the Mosaic Covenant. Punishment of God's faithless people placed an emphasis on God's sovereign rule and authority.

Therefore, I will bring the worst of the nations, and they will possess their houses. I will also make the pride of the strong ones cease, and their holy places will be profaned. When anguish comes, they will seek peace, but there will be none. Disaster will come upon disaster and rumor will be added to rumor; then they will seek a vision from a prophet, but the law will be lost from the priest and counsel from the elders. The king will mourn, the prince will be clothed with horror, and the hands of the people of the land will tremble. According to their conduct I will deal with them, and by their judgments I will judge them. And they will know that I am the Lord. (Ezek 7:24-27)

2. The ancient historical background and context of the prophet matters. For example, Daniel's apocalyptic prophecies were quoted or referred to the most in the New Testament, and while it was the shortest book of the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel), history has shown that Daniel contained the most fulfilled prophecies than any other book of the Bible. Daniel stands unique among the Major Prophets for his ability to interpret the prophetic dreams of Gentiles (Dan 1:9, 17, 19).

3. Prophets in the New Testament placed a different emphasis in their prophecy. The New Testament portrays Jesus Christ as a judge in the future at the end of human history and with a greater emphasis on individuals rather than the nation of Israel as a whole.

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds. (Matt 16:26-27)

How should you read prophetic or apocalyptic literature?

  • Predictions of the future are not this literary genre's primary function. Instead, it is to proclaim the words of the Lord for the sole purpose of bringing His people back to Him. The prophet is the spokesman for God.

  • The message of the prophets is similar in content as when God spoke to Moses: a constant reminder to the nation of Israel to keep to their covenant promises and commitment.

  • Coming directly from God, the tone of warning and judgment is ominous and reflects the binding nature of God's divine covenant.

  • When referring to the future, most prophecy dealt with the future of Israel and Judah and the nations surrounding them. These prophetic predictions were largely fulfilled and can be understood with knowledge of ancient history. Some prophecies have yet to be fulfilled.

  • Because of some florid figures of speech, this literary genre is challenging to understand, but typically end with hope and restoration for God's people and the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham.

Try this example as a class exercise. Old Testament prophecies that pertain to Jesus Christ are known as Messianic prophecies, and often, they are not recognized as such until they are referred to in the New Testament.

In this example, as you compare the prophecies of the Old and New Testament, what do you observe? Does the New Testament reference help clarify the Old Testament prophecy? Can you take its literal meaning? What was Malachi referring to? What does this reveal about the Magi?

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity. (Micah 5:2, NASB)

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.'" (Matt 2:1-6, NASB)

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