Unless we understand how prophetic and apocalyptic discourse is structured, these parts of the Bible will remain closed books. We will not read the prophetic and apocalyptic parts of the Bible with relish, and we will not gravitate to them naturally, if we cannot negotiate their unique patterns of organization.
What Not to Expect
Before we look at how prophetic and apocalyptic books are organized, we will benefit from clearing the deck of inaccurate conceptions. The two most common formats found in literature generally—narrative structure and logical arrangement—are not operative in the prophetic and apocalyptic books of the Bible.
Stories are usually structured on the premise of a smooth narrative flow that follows a sequence of beginning-middle-end. Even when a narrative has multiple story lines (the exception rather than the rule), each of these follows a linear sequence of events.
Prophetic and apocalyptic genres are not structured as a story. There is no smooth and continuous chain of events. There is no unifying action, and there is no plot as that concept is commonly used.
The other common format with which we operate day by day is the logical organization of an essay. It consists of a main thesis accompanied by subordinate generalizations. We assimilate it as a coherent collection of ideas logically arranged.
No one would place prophetic and apocalyptic genres into this category. In fact, I doubt that any passage in the prophetic and apocalyptic books is structured as an essay with subordinate generalizations.
We need to start, then, with an awareness that our two most customary formats for written discourse—narrative and essay—do not account for the prophetic and apocalyptic parts of the Bible.
The Macro Level
Even though we will eventually see that prophetic and apocalyptic books differ in their organization at a minute level, at a more general level they are the same. The most natural term for prophetic and apocalyptic books is “anthology.” An anthology is a collection of self-contained units. The main point of unity is that all of the individual items appear in the same book or collection. There is no continuity or linear sequence that carries through from beginning to end.
The idea of an anthology solves a lot of problems. It spares us from looking for sequential continuity. Freed from that dead end, we can look for an alternative format. A self-contained oracle or apocalyptic vision is just that—self-contained. When we finish it, we have reached closure on that particular unit.
Are there any elements of unity and coherence beyond the unity of an anthology? There are, as follows:
Most prophetic and apocalyptic books use the cluster principle. The book of Revelation contains numerous sevenfold clusters of visions.
In place of sequential flow in the narrative or essay sense, prophetic and apocalyptic books are based on the premise of an accumulation of items in which one is added to the next and so forth.
A prophetic book is a static collection of oracles in which one oracle is followed by the next one. In some (but not all) apocalyptic passages, things are more continuous and fast-moving than that. The right term is “pageant of visions,” and we should remember that the vision is the most customary genre in apocalyptic writing. The effect is like watching a video sequence. In Revelation 16, for example, we witness a pageant of seven bowls of wrath, one after the other.
The Micro Level
The foregoing discussion has dealt with prophetic and apocalyptic books at a macro level. That allows us to take a bird’s-eye view of the books, but it does not help us when dealing with individual units. I am ready to take a more minute look at the individual units.
The simplest pattern that we find in the prophetic oracles is a catalog of individual items unified by a single subject. “Catalog” is the customary literary term for a list. In the case of Isaiah 19:5-8, the list consists of individual natural disasters that will engulf Egypt when God instigates his judgment against it.
Another structural possibility is narrative. The prophetic and apocalyptic books had a more frequent narrative element than the foregoing discussion may have implied. Revelation 12:7–9 narrates an epic action in brief compass:
Yet another pattern of organization is description, usually of a scene and sometimes of a person. Revelation 7:9–10 is an example. This passage paints a picture. The scene is ready for filming and includes costumes and stationing of characters in a scene.
The foregoing outline of structural possibilities is not intended to be exhaustive or prescriptive. But we need some categories in our minds as a starting point. The prophetic and apocalyptic parts of the Bible are more than a collection of individual verses.
At the macro level, prophetic and apocalyptic books are anthologies of individual units, chiefly of oracles and visions, with interspersed additional subgenres. We do not find a narrative flow or logical principle of thesis and subordinate generalizations. Instead, we find clusters of similar material, an accumulation of items that keeps growing, and the pageant principle.
At the micro level, common principles of organization in brief units include catalog, narrative, and description.
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This post is adapted from chapter 9 of Symbols and Reality: A Guided Study of Prophecy, Apocalypse, and Visionary Literature by Leland Ryken (Lexham Press, 2016).