"Apocalypse", these days, means "end of the world". It's the zombie apocalypse, there's a new apocalyptic movie staring John Cusack in the theater, etc. And through that lens, assisted by so-called prophecy scholars, the Book of Revelations is a book about how the world is going to end. It's a prediction of future doom. If you can interpret the cryptic references, the logic goes, you'll know how and when the world will end. Stay calm! Be brave! Wait for the signs!
But "Apocalypse" is also a genre. The word literally means "Revelation", an uncovering of previously concealed things.
Under the traditional view, Revelations matches Daniel and Ezekiel because the authors all saw the same thing and predicted the same events. Under a more literary view, Revelations matches Daniel and Ezekiel because the author read Daniel and Ezekiel and quotes them.
Apocrypals just finished their much-anticipated Book of Revelations episode. If you want more context on the When and Why of Revelations, check it out.
A Modern Apocalypse
For me, Apocalyptic literature needs to meet a few requirements:
- The author is part of a persecuted, poor, or displaced group. The are a have-not, someone society exploits instead of assisting.
- Things are not going well.
- The author receives or claims to have received a divine vision.
- They reveal or uncover this vision to comfort the persecuted group.
- In coded language (to avoid further persecution or to convey specific idea) the author says:
- Everything is going to turn out well.
- The people persecuting us will fall.
- This current injustice will come to an end.
- There a better world on the way.
What modern media meets these requirements?
Ndidi's How Long gets close, but offers few predictions, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, particularly the first section (the part that rarely gets quoted), is another strong contender. But the only completely unambiguous example that springs to mind is Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around.
QualificationsAnd I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder. One of the four beasts saying, "Come and see." And I saw, and behold a white horse.There's a man going around taking namesAnd he decides who to free and who to blameEverybody won't be treated all the sameThere'll be a golden ladder reaching downWhen the man comes aroundThe hairs on your arm will stand upAt the terror in each sip and in each supWill you partake of that last offered cupOr disappear into the potter's groundWhen the man comes aroundHear the trumpets, hear the pipersOne hundred million angels singingMultitudes are marching to the big kettledrumVoices calling, voices cryingSome are born and some are dyingIt's alpha and omega's kingdom comeAnd the whirlwind is in the thorn treeThe virgins are all trimming their wicksThe whirlwind is in the thorn treeIt's hard for thee to kick against the pricksTill Armageddon no salam, no shalomThen the father hen will call his chickens homeThe wise man will bow down before the throneAnd at his feet they'll cast their golden crownsWhen the man comes aroundWhoever is unjust let him be unjust stillWhoever is righteous let him be righteous stillWhoever is filthy let him be filthy stillListen to the words long written downWhen the man comes aroundHear the trumpets hear the pipersOne hundred million angels singingMultitudes are marching to the big kettledrumVoices calling, voices cryingSome are born and some are dyingIt's alpha and omega's kingdom comeAnd the whirlwind is in the thorn treeThe virgins are all trimming their wicksThe whirlwind is in the thorn treeIt's hard for thee to kick against the pricksIn measured hundred weight and penny poundWhen the man comes aroundAnd I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts. And I looked, and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and hell followed with him.
I don't need to go into detail, but I think Johnny Cash's life qualifies him as an author of apocalyptic literature. He wasn't comfortable, and he didn't try to make other people comfortable. He spoke to help people. He punched up.
The initial idea for the song came from a dream I had seven years ago. I was in… England and had bought a book called “Dreaming of the Queen.” The book talked about… people… who dream that they are with Queen Elizabeth II. I dreamed that I walked into Buckingham Palace, and there she sat…. As I approached, [she] looked up at me and said, “Johnny Cash! You’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” Then, of course, I awoke. I realized that “Thorn tree in a whirlwind” sounded familiar to me. Eventually I decided that it was biblical, and I found it in the book of Job. From there it grew into a song, and I started lifting things from the book of Revelation. It became “The Man Comes Around.”
-Liner notes, American IV (2002)Johnny Cash dreamed that a monarch - probably the only living monarch he could name - appeared to him in a dream and spoke a cryptic phrase. That's unambiguously a vision of some sort.
Symbolism and Coded Language
The whole song uses coded references to biblical literature. I'm not going to list them all; this site does a decent job. If Cash's references are a little dodgy in places, so are Revelation's: see Gog and Magog.
We have no idea why the author of Revelations felt the need to describe the width of New Jerusalem's walls or the exact materials that make up its 12 gates. Is there some obscure symbolism at work? Did the author really like precious stones? It is just meant to show the overwhelming wealth and power of God? We just don't know.
EDIT: And so it is written: You cannot have a meaningful apocalypse if strict distance measurements are not kept.In The Man Comes Around, there's a line, "Multitudes are marching to the big kettledrum." This is, I believe, a reference not to Revelations but to the Salvation Army, specifically the marches and processions that famously use a kettle drum. A common sight when Cash wrote the song, and a comprehensible reference today, but imagine a scholar a thousand years from now picking through fragments of early 21st century religious literature. They stumble across The Man Comes Around and decide to translate it into Reformed Esperanto. All the words make sense until they get to "kettle drum".
What's a "kettle drum"? Kettle makes sense; it's a device for boiling water. Drum makes sense, it's a musical instrument. So is a kettle drum some sort of electric musical instrument? Or is the compound word, like skyscraper, an oblique reference to the properties of an object. And why would the multitudes be marching to the object? Is it a gathering place? An idol? A temple?
The translator rewrites the line (in Reformed Esperanto), as, "Many people are marching towards a concert hall."
The translator gets to "Till Armageddon no salam, no shalom", and (unfamiliar with the two languages quoted), decides it's an editorial error in the original text, a duplicated fragment. The line is translated as "There will be no salami [a preserved meat product] until Armageddon."
For the next six hundred years, religious doctrine points to this line as the reason preserved meat products are forbidden.
And if you think that's ridiculous, you haven't spent enough time digging into translation issues.