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Human writing adopts different styles such as prose, poetry, allegory, figures of speech, idioms, etc., and the Bible authors also use these types of styles on different occasions. Even though these writers penned down scripture as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, they used their own natural way of expressing different things. The Bible actually has additional literary forms compared to usual literature, such as parables, prophecy, and apocalyptic (an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known) and eschatological (the study of the end of things) writings. If we do not recognise these different literary genre or styles used in the passage which we are reading, we can sometimes mis-understand the meaning completely. This happens quite a lot among Christians, especially among those who over-emphasise divine inspiration and treat every word and sentence with equal authority as utterances of God. Jesus Himself used different literary forms when He spoke, and in order to understand what exactly He meant in specific cases, it is important to identify the particular genre.Promise seekers!
For example, the Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov.22:6). Even though this looks like a promise, it is not! It is a proverb, which is just a statement based on common observation which is generally true but which can obviously have exceptions to it. In fact there are many such exceptions to this statement that we can see all around us! The intent of this statement is not to give us a promise but to encourage us to train up our children in the right way if we want them to live right when they are on their own. It is also a warning that unless we take the trouble of training our children, they cannot be expected to automatically walk in godly ways. Some people who do not recognise the literary style but treat this as a promise end up in judging others or condemning themselves!
Let us look at some of the literary genre in the Bible and learn how we need to understand them.Poetry
Poetry also comes in several places in the Bible even when the book itself is not considered to be a book of poetry. Prophecies use poetry many times in conveying ideas, and then we need to avoid taking them literally. Look at 1 Kings 22:19-23, where the prophet Micaiah is painting up a poetic picture of a scene in heaven. It would be a mistake to take this literally and assume that God asks angels for ideas to deal with situations or that He sends evil spirits to deceive people. We know this from the nature of God which is revealed to us from other parts of the Bible.
Another aspect of poetry is the way ideas are expressed in a certain pattern, in order to help people to remember them better. When Jesus talked about asking, seeking and knocking He was working with similar ideas placed sequentially to get a better effect from the listeners. Sometimes He mentioned opposite sides of the truth such as a good tree producing good fruit and a bad tree producing bad fruit, and a faithful man who is faithful in small things becoming faithful even in big things while and unfaithful man who is unfaithful in small things ending up being unfaithful even in big things. Another way He used opposites was to say those who exalt themselves would be humbled and those who humbled themselves would be exalted, and those who tried to save their own life would lose it while those who gave up their life for Him would gain it. What we see is that Jesus (and others) used this approach to imprint their ideas deeply into the minds of the listeners or the readers.Figures of speech
Human colloquial expressions
It is a well-known fact that when we people speak to one another we often use words which are not very precise, but which our listeners understand in the right way anyway! For example, when we say the time is 9 o’clock, we don’t even intend to be precise to the second. Sometimes we could be off by ten minutes either way, if we think that that is the precision which the listeners really expect. The authors of the Bible also used this type of expression at times where the expected precision was not very high. For example, “When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’” (Mt.21:10), does not really mean to say every single person in the city was stirred. We know it is just a common way of expression which everyone understands clearly. The problem comes if we imagine that since this is the word of God, ‘all’ must mean only ‘all’!
What did Jesus mean when He said, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do” (Jn.14:13)? It cannot mean we just have to ask, and we will get it, whatever it is! We see that when we read another part of the Bible which clarifies that only what we ask according to God’s will is going to get done (1Jn.5:14). We also know sometimes, if we pester God too much, He may give in to us just to teach us a lesson (Ps.106:15).
On the other hand, we should know when God says something precisely. When Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me,” (Jn.14:6), that is correct. The apostles also understood it right when they said, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts.4:12).
“If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1Jn.2:15). This does not have the precision of a scientific statement which makes love of the world and love of the Father mutually exclusive. We who truly love the Father know that sometimes we are tempted with a love for the world. That does not mean that we do not love God at all, as this verse would seem to mean literally.
Does “It shall be done to you according to your faith” mean that it is like a mathematical proportion? Does it mean that if the blind men who got healed had only half the amount of faith that they actually had, they would have got only one eye opened? Ridiculous! Was not Jesus simply saying that He was going to do what the blind men had asked for in faith? “Your faith has saved you” does not really mean that faith has some power in itself to save us. It is Jesus who saves us when we go to Him in faith. Jesus was only saying that He was saving this woman because He saw her faith. These are just two examples of how people attribute unreasonable precision and meaning to ordinary human language.
In mathematics we could say that if a=b and b=c, then a=c. When the Bible says that sin shall not rule over us because we are under grace, and also that God gives grace to the humble, can we conclude categorically that if we fall into sin it is only because we are not humble? Most of the times the language that the Bible uses is common human language and it is not meant to be taken with a mathematical precision.
So, we must examine each context, and what the rest of the Bible says, to see how we can interpret different passages rightly.Parables
Jesus used parables usually to drive home just one point (or two in exceptional cases). Our aim should be to identify those points. In order to do this we can ask ourselves the question what one thing Jesus is trying to teach us through the whole parable. Sometimes there may be more than one point, as in the case of the Prodigal Son, one each in connection with both the sons. But if we go on looking at every detail in that parable and try to find some spiritual meaning there, we may end up completely off the track. For example, if we look at the parable of the Good Samaritan, what Jesus aimed at was only to answer the question, “Who is my neighbour?” In the parable of the rich man and the beggar, the point that comes out is that we have opportunity to make our life’s choice only when we are on earth, and after that we cannot do anything but to face the consequences. If we try to read some meaning from the other details there we end up in speculation.Proverbs
We have noted earlier, it says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov.22:6). This is not a promise from God, but an instruction to take the training of children very seriously if we want them to walk in godly ways. However, we know that parental training is not the only thing that counts in a child’s life. A person’s personality, the experiences he faces as he grows up, the influence of friends and school, etc., are all factors that contribute to his life. We also know from real life that there are several instances of some children of godly parents who go astray.
Look at Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” What this means is simply that we ought to be careful how we speak, because it can have good or bad results. But to read it as if it is a statement of fact and assume that the tongue has magical or spiritual powers to cause things to happen is foolish and unrealistic.
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes” (Prov.26:4,5). If we are in the habit of taking every imperative statement in the Bible as a commandment to obey, this would stump us! But this example goes to teach us that we should interpret the Book of Proverbs in the same way as we generally do with common proverbs. The difference is that these proverbs have the approval of God on them.Prophecy
When it comes to the foretelling type of prophecy we must understand that there are some things God has said about the future that will definitely happen. For example, when God says that Jesus will come again, it will happen exactly as He has said. But there are other prophecies that proclaim His judgment on people or nations that might change if the people repent. The outstanding example in the OT is about Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh that Nineveh would be overthrown after 40 days. But we know that when the king and the people of Nineveh repented, this judgment was withdrawn. The point is that in such cases we must see the mercy of God overtaking His judgment (Jas.2:13), and not question why God’s prophecy did not take place.
Prophecies related to the apocalypse (God bringing the final destruction on evil powers) or eschatology (related to the end of the days), are usually couched in very poetic language or metaphor, which, I believe, is deliberate, in order to convey certain indications of events that are going to take place without giving away too many details. The Book of Revelation is a typical example. In view of this, we should be very cautious not to read literary meanings out of the writings but to understand the truth being conveyed through pictorial representations. For example, no one will try to imagine Jesus as someone with a sword coming out of His mouth (Rev.1:16)!
The way the Book of Daniel or the Book of Revelation have been written, it becomes extremely difficult to identify a chronological order in which events would happen or to specify exactly what some figures of speech represent, even though some people seem to claim absolute accuracy for their interpretation! Even though Jesus has warned specifically that no one would know the exact day of His return, many people still think they can do one better!History
The history record includes what God did and what different people did, interspersed with teachings and commandments of God for man. When we read the Bible, one of the things we need to keep in mind is not to confuse every historical report as God’s instruction for us. The Bible reports faithfully many wrong things that people did, spoke and thought. Just because they are in God’s word, it does not mean that they are words from God to us to follow! Just because some godly man did something wrong in his life and it is reported in the Bible, it does not mean that God is OK with what he did.
At the same time, we must recognise that we can learn many principles from the good things that people did and the mistakes they made. We can also learn from how God responded to different people and situations. We need to examine things to see if some promises God made to different people under special situations are applicable to us too, and if so, in what way, because not every promise mentioned in the Bible is for us.
When we read that Jacob said he had seen God face to face (Gen.32:3), we ought to think that this was just how he interpreted his experience with God. He could not have actually seen God, because God Himself has said that no one could see His face and live (Exo.33:20). Jacob said to Esau that he saw Esau’s face as if it was the face of God (Gen.33:10). We can understand this as Jacob’s crafty way of flattering his brother rather than as a literary report of what happened.
In Acts of the Apostles we find that when the church first began to meet together in houses, they ‘broke bread’ (referring to what some would call now as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion) every day from house to house (2:46). Later, as the number increased, and as the apostles thought more about this, this practice seems to have changed to breaking bread on the first day of every week (20:7). Still later, when the apostle Paul wrote down instructions for the churches, he did not mention any frequency at all for the breaking of bread, but said that whenever we did it, it should be done in remembrance of what Jesus had done for us (1Cor.11:26).
What we can learn from this is that we should make a distinction when we read the Bible to see what things are to be followed, and which are instances from which we can draw some lessons.Silence
At the same time, arguments using the silence of Scripture to imply prohibition of certain things is ridiculous. One example is that of teaching that since the NT does not tell us to use musical instruments in church worship it would be wrong to use them!
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