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Understanding the Bible

– for ordinary Christians

Jacob Ninan

Chapter 5

Literary styles

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!
One of the common errors people get into when they do not differentiate literary styles is that they read ‘promises’ into many unlikely places! Many Christians are desperately looking for promises of God from all over the Bible, and they catch hold of every sentence that looks to be in the form of a promise without examining whether the sentence is to be understood at all as a promise or whether it means literally what it says, apart from checking whether it is meant for them.

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.

We are all familiar with the way poets use their words to paint up a picture, dramatize events, stir up emotions, and catch attention. They make use of ‘poetic licence’ to take liberties with grammar, bend facts and play with words to make things rhyme and follow rhythms. We know that every word in the poem is not to be taken literally. It is this same approach that we need to take when we read poetry in the Bible. When we read the songs of Deborah (Judg.5), Moses (Exo.15) and David (The Psalms), which are well known for their poetry, we can read of extraordinary things such as mountains quaking, stars fighting, God’s anger consuming enemies like chaff, His nostrils blowing water into heaps, smoke coming out of God’s nose, and fire from His mouth. Most of us know instinctively that this is poetic language to be taken only in that sense. When we read of the eyes of the Lord and His everlasting arms we know that these are just ways of expressing something of the nature of God, since God is a spirit and He does not have a body with eyes or arms. (This particular usage is called anthropomorphism which is used to express intangible ideas about God in human forms.) “For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His” (2Chr.16:9) means, of course, that God is looking over everyone and will support everyone who follows Him wholeheartedly. But when it is used in its poetic form it gives us a word picture of what is happening, even though it is not factually correct to imply that God has ‘eyes’. ‘The four winds’ and the ‘four corners of the earth’ can also be understood as a poetic usage rather than physical facts.

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
What did Jesus mean when He referred to the eye which is clear (Lk.11:34)? He was not, obviously, thinking of our physical eyes, as we can easily see from the context. But by using the picture of our eyes which observe things and look ahead at our destination, He was helping us to think of our spirit or inner man which needs to be clear about what we value and where we want to reach. This is a typical use of a figure of speech which makes use of a word or phrase that means something more or something other than what it seems to say. Sometimes Jesus would use satire or sarcasm to convey an impression or an idea. When Jesus asked us to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand if they caused us to sin (Mt.5:29,30), was He not using a hyperbole or an over-statement to drive home a point? Jesus once said that it would be easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mt.19:24). Instead of labouring hard to find literal explanations for camels and needles, wouldn’t it be much simpler if we recognised that He was just being humorous and sarcastic? When He asks us to ‘hate’ our father and mother (Lk.14:26), we know instinctively that it is an exaggerated expression to teach us to love God more than we love such loved ones (Mt.10:37). Not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing (Mt.6:3), is obviously another figure of speech to illustrate how we should not seeking to impress others with our generosity, rather than a literal commandment to be followed. Has Jesus actually sanctioned the use of arms (Mt.10:34)—swords, guns, etc.—or was He only indicating that sometimes a believer may have opposition from his own household? Does He really want us to give to everyone who asks, and turn the other cheek when someone strikes us on our right cheek (Mt.5:39,42), or was He, in fact, teaching us a certain attitude of mind towards those who would take advantage of us? (Let us note here in passing, that Jesus Himself did not turn the other cheek when He was struck - Jn.18:22,23). “The tongue is a fire,” says James (Jas.3:6), meaning to convey the fact that it has a great potential to create a lot of havoc if we use it without control. It is clear that no one should imagine that James was actually stating a fact by equating a tongue with fire! The Bible uses a lot of such figures of speech, and it is obvious that we should understand them in their proper sense.

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 in the Bible were generally “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus used many of them to illustrate His points. From a literary point of view, they must be seen as different from allegories which are “representations of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in a narrative.” For Christians the most famous allegory is The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, where a man’s spiritual journey and the challenges he faces are portrayed in the form of a physical journey. The Bible also uses allegories, e.g., using a vine to represent Israel (Psa.80), and referring to Israel and Judah as two women (Ezek.16,17). In an allegory, every detail of the story has a spiritual meaning. But it is not so with most parables. Jesus did use an allegorical interpretation when He narrated the parable of the sower. But what we find in His other parables is that it would be a big mistake if we use that approach.

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 are concise statements of wisdom, which come out as a result of general observation of life over a large period of time. We can say that they are generally true, but it is not as if they are God’s laws that cannot be violated. They can have exceptions. When we read them we need to look for the wisdom or principles that we can get from there, and not for eternal laws.

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.

We could divide prophecy into two types, foretelling and forth-telling. In the OT, prophecy was usually of the foretelling type, declaring things that would happen sometime in the future. (It appears to me that when King Saul started ‘prophesying’ when he came into a group of prophets, it may not have been anything to do with foretelling, but perhaps something like speaking in tongues – 1Sam.10:10.) Many times, we also notice in the OT, prophetic utterances had dual applications, one for the immediate future concerning people or nations and one for the distant future. Forth-telling, on the other hand, is about bringing forth a truth that is already known in such a way that it hits home to the heart in a person’s need. Paul describes this type of prophecy in this way, “one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation” (1Cor.14:3). In a more general way we could describe prophecy as speaking out to people what God wants to tell them.

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!

A large part of the Bible is made up of historical narration. It begins with a description of how God created everything—the universe, the earth, everything on it and finally man. We can trace a story starting from there, proceeding to tell us what man did wrong and the different steps God took to bring man back to Him, and finally culminating in unveiling God’s master plan for the salvation of man through grace—unmerited favour. The book ends with a view of things that will lead to the end of life on this earth and the move to a new earth and heaven where regenerated men and women will be with God forever.

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.

Somebody has said that we should speak (in terms of spiritual matters) only about what the Bible speaks about, and refrain from speaking about subjects the Bible is silent about. However, the Bible is silent about many things, because it was meant to lead us to God (Jn.5:39,40), and not to serve as an encyclopaedia or a source book. Many times our problems of present day life are not directly addressed in the Bible, and Bible teachers need to take on the responsibility of interpreting the teachings of the Bible as applicable for those occasions. The tendency to keep silent because the Bible is silent about some topic actually prevents many Christians from taking a clear view on many modern issues in society.

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!

Chapter 6 – The old and the new covenants

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