Archives For Bible Genres

RevelationFinally we come to the most daunting literary genre in the Bible: Revelation. Of course, the book of Revelation is not a genre in itself, but it makes use of three genres, and how exactly Revelation is to be read and interpreted is one of the most debated issues in Christian theology.

Revelation lets us know that it is made of up three literary genres: letter (1:4–5), prophecy (1:3, 22:6–7), and apocalyptic (this genre stems from the Greek word for “revelation” in 1:1).

  • As a letter, we need to see the “situational” nature of Revelation, keeping in mind those factors we mentioned in discussing the New Testament letters.
  • As prophecy, we will be finding predictions of the future and/or messages from God about how we are to live. This will correspond to what we said about reading Old Testament prophecy. In fact, from a genre perspective, Revelation wouldn’t seem quite so odd if it were placed in the Old Testament rather than the New.
  • As apocalyptic, we will find God communicating to his people, often through sweeping visions and a heavy reliance on imagery. Some modern Christians are suspicious when the term “apocalyptic” gets brought up, thinking that Revelation is about to be explained away. But this genre is used in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, so we needn’t be afraid. Plus John begins the book by saying that this is the “revelation” (Greek: apocalyptic) of Jesus. It simply alerts us to the fact that much of what we’ll see in the book will feature images, and much will be symbolic. Every interpreter agrees that Revelation makes use of symbolism.

Ultimately, what Revelation does for us is pull back the curtain of perception and show us reality. As we look at our world (and this would have been particularly true for John’s original readers), it seems that the dominant forces in this world are winning. It looks as though the wicked are triumphing and God’s kingdom is being halted. But Revelation gives us a peek behind the curtain. It shows us the throne room of God (chapters 4–5); the battle between good and evil, including God’s judgment on the wicked (chapters 6–19); and the glorious end of the world (chapters 20–22). There we see the evil of this world exposed, judged, and destroyed. And we see the triumph of God and his kingdom.

Whatever we decide about the timeline of Revelation, the book is meant to challenge our allegiance. It calls us to come out of the wicked city of this world (18:4–5) and to enter God’s glorious city instead (22:14). As we read, we must choose a city, choose an allegiance, choose a king. And it’s clear which one will be victorious.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read this fascinating book:

 

1. Live within the imagery.

Revelation includes fairly straightforward letters to real churches in chapters 2 and 3. But the main way in which Revelation communicates is by creating a symbolic world into which the reader is invited. Very often, readers of Revelation find a vision or symbol and then immediately try to figure out who or what that symbol represents. I believe this is a mistake.

Remember that these are visions that John is watching. We should step into the visions with John, seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears. Because Revelation is so saturated with imagery, we need to enter the symbolic world and appreciate how the symbols and visions work together. Then we can step back into our modern world and ask what these symbols are referring to. Revelation works extremely well as a literary unit—our disagreement comes when we begin laying the visions out onto our timelines.

 

2. Look for interpretive clues left by the author or characters.

Much of Revelation is left to the reader for interpretation. But there are times when we are told what the symbols refer to—Revelation 1:20, for example. So when we are handed the interpretation, we should latch on to that and use it in helping us interpret whatever we can.

 

3. Consider the relation of these images to the events of history.

We have to start by living within the world of Revelation before we try to decide when these things will be and what precisely they will look like. But at some point, we have to ask those questions. This is where we find the most debate, of course. Some think these events all took place within the first century AD, others say these things are happening spiritually all the time, and still others see these as future events. I know it’s a copout, but there is likely some truth in each of these views (here’s a helpful resource to help you sort out the different views). But even though it’s difficult, we need to ask when and how this will play out.

 

4. Let you life be shaped by the overall picture of Revelation.

As important as the timing of these events is, I would argue that the most important feature of this book is its call to wholehearted allegiance to Christ. He calls us out of the corruption in the world (18:4–5) and calls us to “wash our robes” in the blood of the Lamb and “enter [God’s] city by the gates” (22:14). Ultimately, we have to see these visions as a challenge to the way we see the world and a call to see our world as God sees it.

LettersAs we come now to the New Testament letters (Romans–Jude), we are stepping into familiar territory for most Christians. These letters are theologically rich, and we often find them speaking directly into our lives. But there are some important aspects of these letters that we need to consider as we seek to understand them.

Perhaps the most significant factor to keep in mind is that all of these New Testament letters are situational (commentators call them “occasional”). They’re all grounded in real life situations. They address real needs, real problems, real questions. When we read these letters, we’re literally reading someone else’s mail. Perhaps that sounds a bit deflating for those who feel the letters speaking directly to them. But consider this: All of the theology in these letters is practical theology. It’s applied theology.

When we read 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul gives us some profound theology. In one instance, he explains that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit (6:19). That’s deep theology! It ought to be written about in theology textbooks and preached in sermons. But we also need to realize that Paul spoke that truth for a practical reason. The situation that led Paul to record that theological truth was the sexual immorality of the Corinthian church. They seemed to think they could be sexually promiscuous because they weren’t harming their souls: only “the body” was involved. But Paul responds by saying, “Are you kidding me? Your body matters! It’s the temple of the Spirit! Plus you don’t even own your body; it now belongs to God.”

The situational nature of these letters should always lead us to ask not just what theology is presented, but also why that particular doctrine is presented in that particular letter.

One welcome aspect of the letters is that they tend to speak directly. Whereas poetry and wisdom literature often communicates in imagery and figures of speech, the letters are filled with commands and direct teaching. The letters still use metaphors and rhetorical devices, but in general their tone is more explanatory than poetic. For most modern readers, that makes them a bit easier to follow.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at a few tips for reading the letters:

 

1. Try to reconstruct the original situation.

We’re only getting one side of a conversation when we read the letters. But in order to fully understand what’s being said, we want to grasp the original situation as well as we can. What kind of relationship does the author seem to have with his readers? What types of sins seem to characterize that church? How is the author encouraged by his readers? Does the doctrinal teaching seem to be directed toward a particular form of false teaching? Looking for answers to these types of questions will help us understand what the letter means.

 

2. Trace the flow of thought.

Always remember that these are more than collections of verses. The authors wrote these letters to make points, to present arguments, to challenge their readers over the course of the letter. So try to trace the way the argument unfolds. When you find a practical exhortation, ask if the author is grounding that exhortation in some theological truth he presented earlier. You don’t understand an individual verse until you understand how it fits within the overall flow of the letter.

 

3. Ask how the original readers would have understood the message of the letter.

Before you can determine how the letter speaks to you today, you have to ask how the letter spoke to the original audience. Always try to put yourself in their sandals. How would Paul’s rebukes have felt to you if you were a member of the church in Corinth? How would Paul’s encouragement have given you hope if you were a member of the church in Thessalonica? What cultural factors would have shaped their understanding of a particular teaching, such as Paul explaining how to relate to meat that has been offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8?

 

4. Explore the theology in the letter.

What does the letter teach us about God? What does it teach us about humanity, or sin, or salvation, or the end times? We always have to keep in mind that these doctrines were presented in practical situations, but they still have much to teach us about theology.

 

5. Ask how the letter should be practically applied today.

We’re never done reading the Bible until we respond to its truth appropriately. (Even then we’re not done.) So once we’ve tried to understand how the original audience would have understood the letter, we need to ask what implications it holds for how we live our lives today. Sometimes this is easy to figure out (though not necessarily easy to follow through on), like when Paul tells us to rejoice always. Other times it can be difficult and even controversial to figure out how the letters apply today (think of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 or speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–14). But the point is, we need to examine these letters carefully and apply them appropriately.

ProphecyThe prophetic books of the Old Testament can be tricky. But these are important books, so it’s important that we understand how to read them well.

Old Testament prophecy is not what we tend to think it is. Duvall & Hays summarize some surprising facts about the Old Testament prophetic books:

  • Less than 5% prophesies about the time between Jesus’ first and second comings.
  • Less than 2% prophesies about Jesus (the Messiah).
  • Less than 1% prophesies about events that have not yet occurred.

Most Christians know that the Old Testament is full of prophesies about Jesus. And it is. But those prophecies are only a small fraction of what Old Testament prophecy is about. So what does the vast majority of the prophetic books cover? Sin, really. Or more accurately, the call to repentance.

When we talked about the Law, we said that it was given in a very specific context. So it is with prophecy. In fact, the context of the Law and the context of the Prophets are integrally related. The Law was part of a covenant that God made with Israel. Israel agreed to this covenant along with its terms: if they obeyed, they would be blessed and remain in the Promised Land; if they disobeyed, they would be cursed and carried off into exile.

Now, as we read the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi), the context once again centers on Israel, the covenant, and the Law. Particularly, Israel (which has by this point split into two nations: Israel and Judah) has disobeyed the Law, they have not been faithful to the covenant, so now they are facing exile. The vast majority of the prophetic books, then, is either calling Israel or Judah to repent and remember God’s covenant, promising them judgment for their disobedience, speaking to Israel or Judah in the midst of their exile and explaining how they got to where they are, or speaking consoling words of a time when they will be allowed to return to the Promised Land. (Sometimes the prophets will turn and speak to surrounding nations about judgment and repentance.)

With all of that in mind, here are some tips for navigating this difficult but rewarding genre of Scripture:

 

1. Always start by considering the historical and covenantal context.

Remember that these words weren’t written directly to you. Remember that these people are being held accountable to the covenant that God made with Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai. The relevance of each prophetic passage will extend beyond that historical situation, but it always starts there. So consider the audience, the place in which they stand (is this book written before, during, or after the exile? is it written to Israel, to Judah, or to some other nation? is the passage speaking of hope, judgment, or foretelling the future?), and what these words would have meant to them before you decide what it means for us today.

Jeremiah 29;11 PlateAn example might be helpful. We love Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I estimate that this verse covers roughly half of the decorative plates in Christian homes. But we need to consider the context. These words were written as part of a letter from Jeremiah to the leaders of the Jewish people who were in exile. The letter tells them to settle into their new exilic “home”: they’re going to be there for awhile. And then, after 70 years of being cut off from the Promised Land, God is going to gather them from the nations and return them to their home. Why? Because “he knows the plans he has for Israel.”

Go ahead and read Jeremiah 29:1–23. These words are not a promise that God’s plan for my life is bright and sunny. They are a promise to a disobedient people that they will be punished for 70 years, and then they will be allowed to return home. The context makes all the difference in understanding this passage.

 

2. Feel & visualize the imagery used.

The prophetic books are full of powerful imagery. Just as we said for the genre of poetry, enter into the imagery of the prophets. What visuals is the imagery painting? How should the imagery makes us feel, what would it have us experience? For example, Isaiah 5 confronts Israel in their disobedient response to God’s grace. But it does so by comparing Israel to a vineyard and God to a viticulturist. Take the imagery in. Consider its overall impact. Ask how this imagery would have felt to those hearing it (would they be frightened? given hope? moved to repentance?). Until you let the imagery hit you, you haven’t understood the prophecy.

 

3. Ask what you can learn about God by the way he speaks to his people in this passage.

We have so much to learn about God’s greatness, wrath, mercy, patience, faithfulness, fatherhood, persistence, etc. by reading the prophets. So we haven’t finished reading these passages until we ask what we can learn about God through his words and actions in these books. Let’s revisit Jeremiah 29:11. While we need to understand that it’s not making a promise directly to us, it’s hugely instructive to see God making this kind of promise to such a persistently disobedient people. By reading this passage carefully, we find that even though God punishes his people, he still cares for them, and offers them even more grace in the future. (So you don’t need to smash your decorative plates after all—just make sure you understand the context.)

 

I’ll end with a note about some of the biggest difficulties of interpreting prophecy. One big area of disagreement is how literally the imagery should be taken. When we are told that the lion will lie down with the lamb (Is. 11:6), is that giving us a non-literal mental image of peace or giving us a literal example of what will happen when peace reigns on earth? It’s not an easy question to settle, though the main point is clear (peace is coming!).

Then there are the prophecies about a future restoration for Israel. Are they going to be literally fulfilled in the literal nation of Israel at some point, or are these promises spiritually fulfilled in the church, the New Testament people of God? There are good arguments to be made either way. This is one of the biggest debates in biblical interpretation.

Finally, for that minority of passages that are predicting future events, when will those events occur? Once again, it’s not easy to determine. Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” While God’s Word is sure and we can trust that God knows what these events are referring to, Christians often disagree on precisely when and how these predictions of the future will play out. But don’t worry, it gets even more controversial when we get to the book of Revelation.

Wisdom LiteratureIn talking about “Wisdom Literature,” I’m referring to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. These books focus less on giving us direct commands and instead give us wise sayings to live by. Wisdom Literature pushes us to reflect, and in doing so it forms our character.

Each of these four books plays a different role in the overall body of Wisdom Literature. Proverbs, for example, gives us the norm for biblical wisdom. These sayings hold true in general. Now, as soon as I say that, you might notice that I’m hedging a bit. The sayings are true in general. Consider, for example, the following two proverbs:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:4–5)

So which is it? The truth is, both are wise statements that we should allow to form our character. Taking a cue from verse 4, if we engage a fool in his argument, we’re just playing his game and showing ourselves to be fools. But when we consider verse 5, it’s also true that if we let a fool continue making his argument, his view will prevail and he won’t see the stupidity of it. Therefore we ought to engage the fool in argument so he (and everyone else) can see how foolish he is.

These proverbs set the norm. They tell us how life works, and how to live wisely. There are exceptions to many of these proverbs, but they give us the normal point of view on how the world works.

The other books of Wisdom Literature fill in this perspective. Job, for example, provides us with an exception to proverbial wisdom. Though Proverbs tells us that the righteous prosper (Prov. 3:33), Job gives us an example of a righteous man who does not prosper, precisely because he is a righteous man! Job’s friends use proverbial wisdom in “counseling” him, but they use it foolishly.

Ecclesiastes relays one man’s (“the Preacher”) pursuit of meaning in life. He lays his observations of life, considered apart from God’s presence (this is what the phrase “under the sun” is getting at), alongside traditional proverbial wisdom. He finds life perplexing and meaningless all along the way, until he finally reaches a godly conclusion.

Song of Solomon gives us a collection of love songs that simply delight in the goodness of marital love.

Together these books give us wisdom. Here are some tips for navigating this biblical genre:

 

1. Feel the imagery presented.

When you’re told that it’s better to live in the corner of a housetop than with a quarrelsome wife (Prov. 21:9), you should imagine both scenarios. What would it be like to live in the corner of a housetop? What would it be like to live with a quarrelsome wife (I sincerely hope you have to use your imagination)? Wisdom Literature makes use of vivid imagery for a reason.

 

2. Consider the wisdom offered and the benefits of being shaped by it.

Don’t move through the Wisdom Literature too quickly. Let the wisdom offered sink in. Appreciate it. See the depth of each statement. As you read through Proverbs 5, consider how profoundly wise the warning against the “forbidden woman” truly is. Imagine what your life would look life if your character was formed by these wise sayings. It’s one thing to scamper through a list of brilliant sayings. It’s another to weigh and ponder the depth of their wisdom, and to let that wisdom become a part of you.

 

3. With Proverbs, look for life direction rather than blank check promises.

As I said above, Proverbs offers us the norm. But there are exceptions. Consider, for example, Proverbs 10:3:

“The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry,
but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.”

This is a wise saying to live by. It should shape our character. And it’s often true to life. But do Christians experience crippling hunger? All the time, yes. Do the wicked receive what they “crave”? Very often.

As you read proverbs like this one, let the wisdom of the saying set the direction for your life. You should read this and be motivated to pursue righteousness. But you can’t hold this promise over God’s head like some kind of blank check promise. Paul was content to go without (Phil. 4:11–13). Christians do indeed die of starvation. God isn’t promising you unwavering material prosperity in exchange for good behavior. He spoke these words in the form of Wisdom Literature to shape your character, not to give you grounds for complaint.

 

4. With Ecclesiastes, walk with “the Preacher” on his journey.

As you read this enigmatic book, follow the “Preacher” as he searches for meaning in life. Experience his journey and resonate with his frequent observation that “all is vanity.” See the futility of life apart from God and feel the weight of the many exceptions he finds to proverbial wisdom (e.g. Eccl. 7:15). And then see the brilliance of his conclusion to this fascinating book (12:13–14).

 

5. With Job, accompany this righteous man in his unjust suffering.

As you read through this sad story, feel the bitterness of the unpredictability of life. Feel the foolishness of offering wisdom in a foolish way, as Job’s friends do for chapter upon chapter. Finally, come to the realizations that God offers to Job at the end of the book.

 

6. For Song of Solomon, delight in the romantic side of love.

As you read through this beautiful book, don’t try to spiritualize it, as Christian scholars have done for much of church history. Nothing in this book indicates that these songs are to be taken as allegories of Christ and the church. They give every indication of being love songs written between lovers. So read them that way. And appreciate the value and beauty of romantic love.

 

PoetryWho doesn’t love the Psalms? These poem-songs have been treasured throughout church history. Yet we often have trouble with the imagery and figures of speech that make poetry what it is.

God loves poetry. Over a third of the Bible is recorded in poetic form. Essentially, poetry is a highly structured form of communication. Rather than speaking in free flowing prose, poetry takes pains not only with regard to what to say, but also how to say it. Poetry makes frequent use of imagery and figures of speech. This makes it a somewhat indirect form of communication. The goal isn’t to get us to assimilate information into our brains. The goal is to get us to feel the truth or experience presented by the author.

Here are some tips for navigating this complex genre:

 

1. Focus on the imagery.

When a poetic passage presents you with an image, see it in your mind’s eye. When Psalm 91:4 tells you that God will cover you with his feathers, image hiding under the shelter of a giant bird. The Psalmist is not trying to convince you that God is literally a bird, but he does want you to grasp that imagery and learn and feel more about God through it.

There is a difference here between taking poetry seriously and taking it literally. Psalm 91:4 refers to a literal truth: that God cares for his people. But the poetic phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Taking the poetry seriously means acknowledging the imagery and interpreting it as a figure of speech. Taking it literally leads us far away from the literal truth the Psalmist was trying to convey.

So do your best to fully appreciate the imagery presented. It’s there for a reason. Don’t translate it into propositional statements as quickly as you can; value the imagery.

 

2. Look for poetic elements and structure.

In other words, what makes this poem different than prose? Every poem can be summarized in a bald statement. But that strips the value of the poetry. So what elements are making this poem more powerful than a plain statement?

For example, why does “God is my shepherd; I shall not want” mean more than “God will take care of my needs”? What is added that makes the poetry poetic? In this case, it’s the parallel structure and the figures of speech.

The parallel structure gives us two phrases that are meant to be considered together. Biblical poetry gives us these parallel phrases, typically in groups of two, three, or four lines. So “God is my shepherd” is presented in relationship to “I shall not want.” What is that relationship? How does the one line help us understand the other? Are they saying the same thing (as in Ps. 19:1)? Adding more information (as in Ps. 46:1)? Answering a question (as in Ps. 119:9)? Showing a contrast (as in Ps. 1:6)? All of these are common types of parallelism. In this case, the two lines are complementing one another in a cause and effect relationship. “I shall not want.” Why? Because “God is my shepherd.” The parallel structure adds beauty and depth to this assertion.

The power of the statement also comes from the figure of speech. “God is my shepherd” is not a literal statement. We are meant to visualize it (see point 1) and contemplate our relationship to God in these terms.

Unfortunately, since these poems were written in an ancient language, the figures of speech are sometimes odd or difficult for us to interpret. But we do our best, consulting a pastor, Study Bible, or commentary when it gets tough. This is a common problem in cross-cultural situations (as the video below illustrates).

We should also keep an eye open for unique structure. How are key thoughts structured in the poem? Does the poem show signs of unusual formatting? For example, Psalm 119 is a big acrostic. Verses 1–8 start with the Hebrew “A” (aleph), verses 9–16 start with the Hebrew “B” (beth), etc. Many English translations note this so that you can appreciate the structure. Proverbs 31:10–31 is an acrostic. So are several other Psalms. When you identify these elements, ask how it heightens the impact of the poetry to realize that it has been so carefully crafted.

 

3. Consider the overall impact

Poetry is complex, and the elements that make it unique are often varied and difficult to pinpoint. But that’s what makes it poetry. So when you read through Psalm 23, live in the imagery. Consider the structure and the figures of speech. Then sit back and consider the poem as a whole. How does it impact you? How do you feel after meditating on God as your shepherd, after the assurances of his presence in the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” and after the visual of a banquet laid out even as your enemies look on? It’s not just about identifying propositions to fill in your theological beliefs (though biblical poetry gives us these), it’s about experiencing God in a unique and powerful way through contemplation.

And by the way, if you’re reading through the poetic sections of Scripture quickly, you’re doing it wrong. Speed-reading is such an attractive concept these days, but poetry resists speed-reading. If you’re not willing to take your time and soak it in, you’re not ready to read biblical poetry.