The Bible can be Hard
Why is the Bible sometimes so hard to understand? One reason is that the Bible is actually a collection of writings of many sorts: historical narrative, poetry, teaching, etc. Each must be read accordingly.
When Psalm 114 tells us “The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs” we understand that this is poetic language, not to be taken literally, as we might when reading historical narrative. When we read in Samuel of David’s dalliance with Bathsheba and his subsequent plot to murder her husband, we know that the Bible is simply telling us what happened, not commending David’s behavior.
Generally, the most difficult literary style in Scripture is known as apocalyptic. The word comes from the Greek word “apocalypse” which means a “revelation” or an “unveileing.” It is a writing which reveals a truth that is otherwise hidden, usually in wildly symbolic language and images. The best known example of this is the book of Revelation, but the tradition really begins with the Old Testament book of Daniel.
The thing to remember about apocalyptic literature is that it is not literal. Apocalyptic is not Nostradamus-style attempts to predict the details of future events. Rather it is intended to reveal grand truths, but hidden in wild imagery. So, when the book of Revelation speaks of the “whore of Babylon” being cast into the pit, we are not to envision some future time in which some great literal pit will appear in the earth and a Babylonian of questionable moral character will be thrown in (although — the end times will probably get pretty crazy, so who knows?). The truth behind the image is that the nation of Babylon will not stand, because of its evil and rebellion against God. But going a step further, at the time John received this revelation, Babylon had been gone for over 600 years. So what did it mean? It is most commonly believed that the reference is to Rome as that was the power in Israel at the time, viewed as evil invaders by the Jews, the moral equivalent of the ancient Babylon.
It helps to recall that almost all apocalyptic literature was written in times of persecution or occupation. Daniel was written during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, a Syrian king who ruled Israel during the first part of the second century BC, viciously persecuting the Jews and defiling the temple, even going so far as to sacrifice a pig in the Holy of Holies.
Apocalyptic generally speaks of the overthrow of the present oppressive powers and the ultimate victory of the forces of God and righteousness. So we should look for these “big picture” meanings rather than getting too absorbed in the details.
This Sunday in the Gospel lesson from Mark (click here to read it), begins a short section of apocalyptic sayings. Jesus speaks of “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes, famines, etc. His point, I think, is that we should expect difficulties, struggles, challenges and calamities in the course of life, but be not dismayed! He is in control and will accomplish his purpose! When we start seeing every war, earthquake, or famine as a sign of the end times, we miss the larger truth that He is in control, regardless of the appearances! In that confidence, we can face whatever may come!
This Sunday is also Holy Scripture Sunday when we give thanks for these great truths that no only draw us to Jesus and His kingdom but give us the hope and vision to face this life with boldness and joy!
This column appeared in the November 18, 2018 issue of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the complete issue.
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