Apocalyptic literature takes its name from the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis), which literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘unveiling.’ As some of us may already know, the last book of the Bible, translated with the title ‘Revelation,’ draws its name from the first word of the book, which is this very word ‘ἀποκάλυψις.’ Unfortunately, our reading of Revelation as speaking of the future often confuses us about apocalyptic literature in general.
Andrew Hill describes apocalyptic literature as:
‘crisis’ literature, typically conveying specific messages to particular groups of people caught in in dire situations. . . . Visionary literature announces an end to the way things are and opens up alternative possibilities to the audience as a result of God’s impending intervention in human affairs. Three types of messages are usually associated with the visionary literature of the Bible: (1) a message of encouragement to the oppressed; (2) a warning to the oppressor; and (3) a call to faith for those wavering between God’s truth and human ‘wisdom.’
Reality is often hidden from our ordinary perception, so apocalyptic literature unveils what is truly happening with the simultaneous aim of encouragement, warning, and exhortation. Apocalyptic is not primarily about the future; it is primarily about the cosmic reality underlying all of human history. This is why Daniel Block tells us that “the intention of apocalyptic is not to chart out God’s plan for the future so future generations may draw up calendars tub to assure the present generation that — perhaps contrary to appearance — God is still on the throne (cf. Dan 7:18, 21-22, 27; 8:25; 12:1-4), and that the future is firmly in his hands.”
What often leads us into the drafting of calendars and the drawing of charts from apocalyptic literature is the dramatic symbolism and the critique that does exist of kings and kingdoms. As adults, particularly in a results-oriented, project-management culture, we often lose our imagination about life. This diminishment of imagination ruins us for hearing the voice of God in the midst of apocalyptic. With apocalyptic literature in His hands, God wants to blow a hole in our stultified imagination so that we can see reality with apocalyptic eyes and consider reality with apocalyptic minds and hearts. Daniel, Ezekiel, and John the Revelator all stand as guides into the apocalyptic imagination necessary to live out our faith as exiles in a world and cultures where we are most definitely not at home.
Tremper Longman, in his commentary on Daniel, outlines six key themes of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions, found in the second half of the book:
- the horror of human evil, particularly as it is concentrated in the state
- the announcement of a specific time of deliverance
- repentance that leads to deliverance
- the revelation that a cosmic war stands behind human conflict
- judgment as certain for those who resist God and oppress his people
- the equally certain truth that God’s people, downtrodden in the present, will experience new life in the fullest sense
Those themes spin around like the wheels of Ezekiel’s visions in the metaphors and images, the dreams and the visions, of Daniel, chapters 7-12. As we read through those chapters we want to keep these themes in mind and let God enliven our imagination through what we encounter. While we should rightly grapple with what each symbol or metaphor represents, we also do not want to become rigorously attached to either outlining plans that are not clearly in the book or woodenly interpreting symbolism that intends to destabilize our ability comprehend. Instead, let us, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis’ description of how George MacDonald’s fantasy writing in Phantastes affected him, allow Daniel to “baptize our imagination” into grasping exilic faith with a force and freshness we have not yet known.
 Andrew E. Hill, “Daniel,” in Daniel-Malachi, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Rev. Ed., Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 131.
 Daniel I. Block, “Preaching Old Testament Apocalyptic,” CTJ 41/1 (2006), 52.
 Tremper Longman III, Daniel NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 178-179.